Are You Underpaid? Here’s Exactly How to Ask Someone How Much Money They Make

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Are you getting paid enough?

If you suspect the answer is “no,” there’s a conversation that can help you find out — and it doesn’t have to be as awkward as you think. 

For my latest book, Broke Millennial Talks Money, I spoke to seven career and negotiation experts as well as people who successfully lobbied for a raise. Their secret? They found a way to have honest conversations with their coworkers and peers about pay, which armed them with the information they needed to make their case. As negotiation expert Alexandra Dickinson put it, “How much are you willing to pay in order to avoid an awkward conversation?” 

Let that sink in. 

It could cost you thousands of dollars per year and hundreds of thousands over the length of your career if you let the fear of an uncomfortable conversation keep you from getting paid fairly. 

I’ve been on both sides of this equation, both as the asker and the askee. My job is to write and talk about money, so I’m a bit more comfortable than the average person with asking a friend or peer in my field about rates. But those talks haven’t come without awkward, even painful experiences. There have been times I’ve discovered that I underpriced my services and made thousands of dollars less than a peer for the same work. That stings. 

However, if I hadn’t engaged in the uncomfortable conversation and asked someone how much they charged for the project, I never would have known what was possible for me to earn in the future. You deserve the same level of clarity.

How to Start the Conversation

For many people, the idea of asking a coworker how much they make is nauseating. You run the risk of upsetting the delicate balance of office politics or being judged by someone you interact with often. 

An abrupt Slack message — “Hey, how much do you make?” isn’t the best opener. 

Instead, ask to speak 1:1, and provide them with the necessary context so they understand why you’re asking.

Here are a few ways to break the ice:

“I’m getting the sense that I’m significantly underpaid compared to the men on our team [or fill in your reason here] and I’m hoping you can help me test that assumption.”

“I’m getting ready to ask for a raise. I want to make sure that my expectations aren’t too high or too low. I was hoping you could help me calibrate what to expect at our company.” 

Then, if they seem amenable, it’s time for the ask. 

Personally, I like to ask directly what someone has charged or would charge on a project or even throw out a candid “what’s your salary”? 

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t like to be asked in such a blunt way, so it’s good to have a backup strategy.

Ask About Their Salary Using the ‘Over or Under’ Trick

A simple technique is to ask using the phrase “over or under.”

“Do you earn over or under [insert amount here]?” 

That will give you a starting point. Depending on how comfortable you are with the conversation, you can keep following up (especially if the answer is “over”) to get a better sense of the person’s salary range. 

Another subtle way in is to ask for a “ballpark salary” and just let them decide how to answer. You can follow that up with over/under if you need a little more information. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Cold Pitch People You Don’t Know

It’s perfectly legitimate if you don’t want to ask coworkers their salaries. Fortunately, you have other options. LinkedIn and other social media networks provide you the opportunity to cold pitch complete strangers and use the exact same scripts you’d use on a coworker. 

It’s important to be strategic about who you ask in order to get useful information. The person should hold the same job title as you — or the one you’re aiming for after a promotion or interview. They should live in the same city as you or one of a similar size and with a comparable cost-of-living. For example, New Yorkers could benchmark against a city like San Francisco, but shouldn’t reach out to someone in Boise or Atlanta.

You’ll also want to ask both men and women to get a sense of any gender gap in your industry. BIPOC folks should reach out to a mix of white people and fellow BIPOC in order to account for any racial wage gap they may currently be experiencing.

A sample message you could send on LinkedIn might go something like this: 

Hi — I’m preparing to ask for a raise [or insert your reason for asking]. [You can also include additional context that might be relevant, such as “I recently learned I’m underearning compared to coworkers or that my company doesn’t seem to compensate at a fair market rate.”] As I prepare for my meeting with my boss, it would be helpful if you could share what you think I should be making or what salary you recommend I ask for. Even a ballpark would be appreciated. 

Don’t worry if you don’t hear back. This is a numbers game, so I recommend reaching out to at least 15 people and give plenty of lead time before you need the information. 

Why Freelancers and Self-Employed People Need to Ask, Too

Career advice is often geared toward the traditionally employed and sometimes doesn’t address the unique friction points of self-employed people. In the case of talking salaries, it’s even more critical for freelancers and self-employed workers to ask one another about pricing models and rates. There is no universal data aggregator giving a high-level overview like Glassdoor or Salary.com. Sharing rates helps other people understand what the market can bear and helps raise the collective price point for their work. So ask early, and ask often.

Bottom Line

Talking about money can be awkward, but it’s a critical skill set that will help us continue to develop and strengthen our own financial lives. 

Get more scripts and advice for navigating awkward money conversations in Broke Millennial Talks Money: Scripts, Stories and Advice to Navigate Awkward Financial Conversations.