Researching Your Worth Before trying to negotiate better pay, make sure you know the market.
By Beth Brophy

(Business 2.0) – You'll always be at a disadvantage in a salary discussion unless you know the going rate for your talent. The sources of that information vary in reliability, so you have to know where to ask. And, given the touchiness of the subject, it also helps to know how to ask.

ONLINE RESOURCES Start your investigation online, where websites offer free salary reports for a wide variety of job titles. Salary.com collects pay data from employers and aggregates the numbers by industry. Salaryexpert.com relies almost entirely on government sources, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and also reports by industry. Vault.com, by contrast, publishes anonymous employee postings, organized by company. It could potentially be more useful to you if the company you're interested in is included. For around $25 to $50, Salary.com and Salaryexpert.com also offer personalized reports that consider factors specific to your situation, while Vault.com premium members get more insider secrets.

SALARY SURVEYS Magazine surveys provide a level of analysis roughly equal to the free salary reports available online. Trade magazines are generally the most useful, since they have a narrower field to cover and can include more job titles in a specific industry. Trade associations also conduct salary surveys, and you can usually access them by telephone or by visiting their websites.

PEERS Always run a reality check on data you get from a website or magazine survey. Talk to people who actually hold the jobs in question. Use your network to contact friends of friends who have jobs like yours (if you're negotiating a raise in your current spot) or like the one you're trying to obtain. But don't ask anyone about his or her own salary if you expect a straight answer. According to career coach Colleen Bracken, people tend to exaggerate or underplay their salaries by as much as 20 percent. "People are more forthcoming about their sex lives than their salaries," she says. Instead, merely ask for the range of pay for the position at your level of experience.

HEADHUNTERS Recruiters are even better than peers for a reality check, since it's their job to know the going rate for the industry they cover and, unlike peers, they have no reason to fudge. The problem is, you can't cold-call recruiters you've never met and expect them to divulge what are essentially trade secrets. So it's a good idea to be helpful with recruiters who might phone you seeking leads. That way, when you're doing your own research, you can call in the favor. -- BETH BROPHY