MONEY Careers

The 3 Things You Must Know About How Your Employer Sets Salaries

Row of people with labels announcing their salary.
Knowing exactly what your peers make isn't as important as knowing how your employer sets the range for your position. Tetra Images—Getty Images

Whether or not you think everyone should know how much everyone else makes, there’s one area where discussions around salary should be absolutely transparent.

Recently, the idea of salary transparency has been bubbling to the forefront—from President Obama signing an executive order in April prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay to companies like Buffer posting their employees’ salaries publicly for all to see. The same arguments come up every time this topic makes headlines: On one side are those who argue that employers are the only ones benefitting from secrecy; on the other are those who fear that complete openness around compensation could lead to jealousy and infighting among employees.

Whether you think it’s a fantastic or horrible idea for everyone to know the size of everyone else’s paycheck, there’s one area where I think discussions around salary should absolutely be transparent: discussing your own pay with your own employer.

If every individual employee had a better understanding of how their employers made decisions about compensation, there would be far less discontent around the subject of salary—assuming, of course, that the employers have a good and fair compensation strategy. (To be clear, fair doesn’t necessarily mean equal pay for everyone working in a particular role. A number of factors can, and should, impact an individual’s compensation: years of experience, education/training, skills, and performance, among them.)

There are three things everyone should understand about their own pay and that I hope employers are willing to discuss:

1) How your employer sets pay
Most employers use compensation data of some kind to set salary ranges for the various roles within the organization. However, most employees don’t know where that data comes from. It’s a good question, and one that more people should probably be asking. Next time you’re discussing your pay (or chatting up your HR person at the water cooler), just ask. If they can’t give you an answer, that may be reason for concern. You want to know your employer is using valid data to set appropriate pay ranges and not pulling a number out of a hat.

2) Where you fall within the salary range for your specific position
Not knowing if you’re being paid fairly can breed discontent. According to a recent study “pay secrecy might also hurt your work performance and prompt top talent to look for new jobs.” If everyone understands the full salary range for the given role, it’s easier to have open, honest conversations about why you fall where you do within the range. Even if your employer isn’t willing to share the range they’re using, do your own homework and make sure you have a sense of the salary range for your position. You can even share your findings with your employer so that they can let you know if it’s similar to the range they’re using. If it’s different, it’s another opportunity to ask about what data they’re using so that everyone is working off the same numbers.

3) What you can do to move up in the range
If you’re at the 50th percentile or above within the range for your position, you’re doing pretty well comparatively. But, if you’re below the 50th percentile, it might be time to ask for a raise. If you’re already a top performer, pull together a list of recent accomplishments that show how you’ve contributed to the company, and ask to set a time to discuss your pay with your manager. If the feedback is that you aren’t quite working at the level they’d consider for a raise, ask your direct manager what goals you should be working toward to make it to that next level. Keep the conversation focused on your career path and your desire to contribute more to your organization. A good manager will be more than willing to talk about how you can get there.

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Lydia Frank is editorial director at PayScale.com, a site that provides on-demand compensation data and software to employees and employers.

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