“In the future, there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.” 
― Sheryl Sandberg

Let's Talk About Salaries

Let's Talk About Salaries

Ashlie Johnson Coggins


Sometimes job hunting can feel like a game of chicken between employers and job-seekers. Employers will often wait until the very last minute to provide insight into salaries and benefits. Job-seekers have to guess the best time to bring up compensation—too soon and you’ll commit a job interview faux pas (and maybe ruin your chances of an offer), too late and you might find out your dream job offers $10,000 less than you need to live and you’ve wasted a lot of valuable time and energy going down the wrong path.

I once was involved in a conversation about when to bring up the compensation question during a job interview. Many agreed it had to wait until the very end, unless the employer brought it up sooner. A common argument for delaying the money question was the need to prove to the employer that you were excited about the job itself and not just looking for a paycheck. My argument: If I didn’t need the money, I would be sitting on a tropical island somewhere, drawing on my iPad all day. That doesn’t mean I’m not wildly excited about this particular job. It just means that I have bills to pay.

Why aren’t more job listings transparent about compensation? The answer will vary by employer, but it is often a mix of thoughtless and outdated practices, along with a desire to get the best hire for the least amount of money. By removing salary and benefit transparency, employers can attract a wider range of candidates. One candidate might do a job for $40,000 a year, while another would do the same job for $30,000, while yet another wouldn’t accept less than $55,000. Offering a job that pays $30,000 to someone who needs $40,000 seems like a waste of time for everyone involved, but the employer is betting this salary game will play in their favor. In a common scenario, they might split the difference with a final offer of $35,000 after negotiations. If they listed the salary range at $30,000 to $40,000 right away, the candidate would know there’s more wiggle room and might not relent until that top number is met. If the employer listed the salary range at $30,000 to $35,000, the $40,000 candidate wouldn’t even apply in the first place.

Another tactic employers use to get great candidates for less is asking what their previous salaries were. (I try to avoid answering this question at all costs, because in past employment my work was underpaid in the first place, and raises were rarely given to anyone, leaving wages stagnant company-wide while the cost of living continued to rise.) As Liz Ryan, a Forbes contributor, wrote: “The truth is that your past earnings should not limit your current salary expectations … Your past salaries are not a good indicator of what you're worth to a new prospective employer. Your value to every new employer is a whole new ballgame, and it's based on their needs, your experience, your wisdom and lots of intangible elements.” Some states are even moving to make the question illegal, but in my current job hunt, I’ve encountered several applications where this information was required in order to move forward.

It’s not uncommon for employers to ask what salary you want upfront without giving any context about how much an opportunity pays. While you may have a general sense of what your work is worth and the cost of living in your city, a company may pay way over or under that range. If you say you want to make $75,000 a year, but the employer only wants to pay $60,000, then you’ve blindly disqualified yourself from their candidate pool before ever knowing if other benefits like telework, unlimited vacation or stellar healthcare might raise the overall compensation package and make the lower salary worth it. On the other hand, if you want to make $75,000, but everyone else in the department doing similar work makes $80,000, you’ve unknowingly cost yourself $5,000 in potential earnings right away. It’s a vicious trap. Hot tip: if someone asks you what salary you want, put the question back on them and ask what salary range the role falls under.

I once was offered a job I knew was worth at least $60,000 a year with my experience and skills, but I was told the job would likely pay a little less for a variety of reasons. I assumed that might mean $55,000 as a starting point, so I went ahead with the interview process. When I received an offer of $53,000 a year and a benefits package that was insufficient, I was disappointed and a little insulted.

After chatting with the recruiter, he suggested I counter-offer at $60,000 with the explanation that I would need the extra money to pay for my own health plan due to their lackluster healthcare options. He felt they would easily accept that offer, because they wouldn’t be paying for any of my healthcare costs, thus saving them money. At the end of the day, this offer would still value my experience and my work at $53,000, and that just didn’t sit well with me. Shortly after I turned down the position, the recruiter posted the job opportunity again, but this time with a stated salary of $60,000. The sudden move to transparency and a willingness to pay what the job was worth was a clear attempt to quickly attract additional candidates. But what if they had started there in the first place?

The initial offer I received left room for doubt about the job itself. If I had been offered $60,000 up front, I might have accepted without any additional thought. In some ways, I’m thankful the offer was low, because it made me think carefully about my worth and the pros and cons of the role. But from the employer’s perspective, they lost a qualified candidate for a role they needed to fill immediately and wasted a lot of time.

Many startups and tech companies are moving to more transparent business practices, including complete transparency around salaries. This not only means job candidates know the salary range of the job to which they are applying, but employees know how much everyone in the company makes and why. Buffer leads by example in this respect, and while it might not be a perfect system, it’s certainly a system that gives employees more power and requires a company to create pay scales that are more fair and ethical.

When the labor market favors employees (like it does right now) and the largest percentage of employees in the workforce (millennials) have increasingly different ideas about work than previous generations, it would be wise for employers to adopt more transparency, along with compensation and hiring practices that treat employees as people instead of a unit of production to be acquired at the lowest price possible. The strange taboo around money isn’t just in the workplace. It spills into every aspect of our lives and begins to shape how we view our worth and our place in the world. We’d all be better off talking about money more openly and directly.

The less mysterious we make money, the more power we have over it—and the less power it has over us.


Ashlie is a content creator for Burt’s Bees in Durham, NC. She enjoys thinking and learning about human centered design, storytelling, environmentalism, art, culture, and the ways people create identity and connection in the digital world. She’s also a huge fan of cats and karaoke. Follow her on Instagram at @ashlie_elsewhere or visit her home for all things creative at heyashlie.com.

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