Feeling Underpaid? 5 Steps to Make What You're Worth

According to a 2016 survey conducted by the job-hunting site Glassdoor.com, 3 in 5 employees accepted the first salary they were offered at a new job, rather than negotiate for higher pay. Previously, a 2014 survey conducted by the same company found both women and men -- roughly one-third of male employees and 42 percent of female employees -- believed they were not paid fairly. Whether you didn't negotiate from the beginning or started feeling underpaid along the way of the job, if your paycheck feels a little lighter than it should; you're not alone. 

Employees can get a ballpark idea of the pay range in their field, geographic area, and experience level by hitting up the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sites like Payscale.com and Salary.com, or by contacting professional associations in their industry. Once you know that you're underpaid, here's what to do:

Step 1: Set Your Expectations

sign pointing in the direction of a new career

The average employee can expect to receive about a three percent raise this year, according to research from the global consultancy group, Mercer. If you're looking for a salary leap that's substantially above what others of equal experience are earning in your field, you may need a career change, not a raise.

"The best advice to people who really care about making a lot of money is so absurdly simple but it's hugely powerful, people often overlook it. It's to go into a field that pays well," says James M. Citrin, senior director at the executive recruiting and leadership advisory consulting firm, Spencer Stuart, and author of The Career Playbook: Essential Advice for Today's Aspiring Young Professional.

Citrin adds that salary is only part of the equation, and should be evaluated alongside other factors like the quality of the job and the lifestyle that comes with it.

If a career change is on the menu for you, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has an extensive list of median wages across various work sectors to check out.

Step 2: Do the Work

man on the path to doing better work

Knowing that you're underpaid isn't enough, Citrin adds. Winning a raise means proving that you deserve one.

"If you are looking to be more highly compensated and you're not a super high performer then you really put yourself at more risk trying to go for more compensation," Citrin says. "… The first step is to really work on excelling on the right kinds of assignments and meeting objectives and all of the various things that lead to being classified in your organization as a high performer."

Before meeting with your boss, write a summary of your key accomplishments over the last performance period, using verifiable numbers when possible and making sure to highlight ways in which you've exceeded expectations, says Lois P. Frankel, author of the career guide, Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. Proving that you boosted sales in the last quarter, increased team productivity, or reduced turnover makes for a more compelling argument than just stating that you need more money.

If you know you have a performance review coming up, "you can send an e-mail that says, 'I know you'll be doing reviews in six weeks. I just want to summarize my key accomplishments during the last performance period and then during the review we can discuss how to move forward,'" Frankel says. "… Don't expect your boss to remember everything you've done, particularly if he or she is very busy."

Step 3: Pick the Right Time

man pointing out bad timing

"The best time to go in and talk about your pay is when your company has had a really big win, or the economy or your industry is on an upswing," says Lydia Frank, senior editorial director of the salary data and software company, Payscale.com.

Before asking for raise, Frank recommends doing a bit of research on recent activity within both your industry and company. You'll also want to investigate when it's appropriate for employees to discuss salary increases, adds Lois P. Frankel. While some companies expect employees to address salary adjustments during performance reviews, others keep those two conversations separate.

"If their policy is we don't talk about money during performance reviews, then you've got to figure out when do we talk about money?," Frankel says.

Step 4: Prep Your Boss

worker talking to boss

Asking for a raise is a delicate conversation, so you'll want to give your boss a heads up that you want to talk about a salary adjustment.

"Say, 'Hey, I'd like to set up a time where we can talk about my salary. I've done a little research. When is a good time?,'" recommends Lydia Frank. That way, "they have a chance to prepare."

While your boss is preparing, have a salary figure in mind. Lois P. Frankel says that two of the most common mistakes employees make when asking for a raise are not being specific and not asking for a big enough boost. She recommends researching the range of pay in your job and geographic area, then asking for 15 to 20 percent more than you actually want in order to leave room to negotiate.

Employees should also think about their total compensation packages. If a salary bump isn't possible, you may still be able to negotiate an increase somewhere else, such as more vacation days or tuition reimbursement.

Step 5: Leave the Conversation Open

woman friendly with boss

Sometimes salary increases are possible, and sometimes they aren't. If your boss puts the kibosh on your request for a raise, "try to get a sense of where that 'no' is coming from," says Lydia Frank. "If it's something about you and your performance and they don't believe that you deserve a raise, ask a lot of questions and try not to go on the defensive, which is hard."

A raise may not be possible now, but it could be in the near future. Even if you receive a rejection, The Career Playbook author James M. Citrin says to use the opportunity to reiterate how important a salary increase is to you, to ask about when an increase could be reconsidered, and to showcase how you're going above and beyond for the company. Citrin says employees can also position themselves for a raise in the next compensation review period by suggesting ways that they can become even more of an asset to the company, such as through leading a training seminar, doing a competitive study, or taking on a special project that can help prove that they're high performers.

"Do something so that you're not just asking, but you're demonstrating with your actions that you're all about adding value," he says.


If you are looking for more than a raise, why not consider going back to school? Find your area's top 4-year schools or the best schools by type of program to get your career on the track you want it to be on. 

  1. "3 in 5 Employees Did Not Negotiate Salary," Glassdoor Blog, accessed July 2018, https://www.glassdoor.com/blog/3-5-u-s-employees-negotiate-salary/
  2. "2 in 5 Employees Do Not Believe They Receive Fair Pay; Glassdoor Survey Explores Income Inequality, Gender Breakdowns," Glassdoor Blog, http://www.glassdoor.com/blog/2-5-employees-receive-fair-pay-glassdoor-survey-explores-income-inequality-gender-breakdowns/
  3. "2014/2015 US Compensation Planning Executive Summary," Mercer, p. 1, http://www.mercer.com/content/dam/mercer/attachments/global/Talent/Compensation_Planning_Survey_ExecSumm14.pdf
  4. James M. Citrin, a partner at the leadership consulting firm, Spencer Stuart, and author of "The Career Playbook: Essential Advice for Today's Aspiring Young Professional." Interviewed by the author Aug 24, 2015.
  5. Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D. and author of "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers." Interviewed by the author Aug 24, 2015.
  6. Lydia Frank, senior editorial director of the salary information site, Payscale.com. Interviewed by the author Aug 24, 2015.