Underpaid? How to find out now

Sharing salary information with colleagues is dangerous, difficult and, if you play it right, pretty darned useful.

By Sam Grobart, Money Magazine senior editor

NEW YORK (Money Magazine) -- Let's talk about something we're not supposed to talk about. No, it's not religion or politics. It's not even sex.

I'm getting at something completely taboo: how much money we make.

Strange, isn't it? You would tell a coworker about that severely embarrassing time you coughed up a porcini mushroom on your boss' tie before you would ever share that sacred number.

We take it as a given that, to ensure professional tranquillity, we keep such information to ourselves. And for the most part we should. Finding out how much your peers and colleagues earn can lead to unforeseen complications.

My friend - let's call him Ted - was talking about his salary with his colleague Russell. "We should just tell each other how much we make," Russell said.

Ted was reluctant, but after further urging, he agreed and the two colleagues spilled the beans. As it turned out, Ted earned significantly more than Russell, even though the two were at the same level and had been on the job at the company for the same amount of time.

Russell had recently had his annual review, so he couldn't readily go back to his boss to ask for a raise. Instead he grumbled. And grumbled.

The old friendly banter that Ted and Russell had once shared turned into awkward and infrequent conversations, usually peppered by Russell with phrases such as "Well, I'm sure you don't have these worries, Ted." (Subtext: money worries.)

By blithely sharing their pay information, they botched a perfectly good friendship. "The problem with these discussions is that there's often a winner and a loser," says Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation at Salary.com, a paycomparison Web site. "Someone's feelings are likely to get hurt."

Or someone's career. One of my former colleagues discovered that he wasn't paid as well as other staffers. When he asked his boss why not, the answer was a deflating "You're not as good as they are."

Still, there's plenty to be said for sussing out the pay scale. After all, you work for money, and if you learn that you're earning less than everybody else, you can use the knowledge to press for more dough.

Squeezing this information out of unwilling peers and managers isn't easy, of course, but you can do it - without hacking into the company computer.

Here's how to conduct your investigation.

Getting the real dirt

You can start by checking industry salary surveys on the Internet. But you probably won't learn enough: In a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, researchers found that internal pay comparisons (how much you make compared with the person down the hall) were more important to employees than external comparisons (how much the people at the competing firm across town are paid).

You really want to know what people are earning at your place.

The best way to get those data is to have a chat about your salary with whoever is your mentor in the office. You don't have to get specific; just say something like "Lou, I believe I've done a good job here and I'm planning on asking for a raise. Can you clue me in on what the company is paying now?"

If Lou is plugged in and knows what your job's salary range is, he can offer the guidance without betraying any confidences.

Here's another tactic: If you're with a large group of similarly ranked colleagues at, say, a bar, you can play the party game where each person writes his or her salary on a slip of paper, folds it up and places it in a hat.

Mix the hat up and read the numbers aloud. The results should tell you all you need to know, and no one's feelings are hurt since the data are anonymous.

Here's what not to do: stomp into your boss' office and scream "Why the hell aren't I making as much as Kovics?"

She's likely to shoot back, "Because Kovics doesn't come in 45 minutes late every day, take two-hour naps after lunch and insult as many clients as you do."

There's nowhere you can go from there but the help-wanted ads. Learning that you are underpaid compared with a colleague needs to inform a discussion, not become the heart of one.

After all, you don't knowthat much about Kovics. Perhaps he negotiated a better deal when he was hired, took on more responsibility, or has more experience.

On the flip side, knowing that someone on your level earns more than you do means that you can earn more than you do. "Your salary is most likely defined within a range," says Salary.com's Coleman. "Once you know what that range is, you can talk about moving up within it." Nobody reacts well to "I want more money."

A much better way to frame the demand: "What would I have to do to get more money?" Most bosses are happy to answer that question because now you're saying, "I am willing to work harder and smarter for you." The more you can emphasize that message, the more likely it is that some extra money will flow your way.

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