I still remember my first offer letter after college. My starting salary was right in the middle of the “market range” for my industry, and after comparing notes with peers and colleagues, it seemed like we were all making about the same amount.
But, 10 years later, our compensation rates diverged wildly.
This makes sense, because when you enter the job market you’re essentially a blank slate. You may have an impressive internship or degree on your resume, but for all intents and purposes, your career and compensation package are yours to build in the years that come. And building a better compensation package is all about knowing what you’re worth.
So how do you figure that out? Well, you could break into your boss’ office to check out what everyone else is making—but that might get you fired. Instead, here are four undercover ways to do some research and figure out if your salary is the industry norm—or if you’re being underpaid.
1. Contact a Recruiter
Recruiters spend all day picking apart resumes, conducting in-depth interviews, and poring over portfolios, all in an effort to play professional matchmaker. It’s their job to pull out the strengths in a candidate’s resume and sell them for the highest possible price—in fact, their compensation depends on it. So why not use this important resource to your advantage?
Even if you’re not ready to leave your job, set up an informational interview to pick a recruiter’s brain on what she’s seeing in the job market. When going this route, here are some tips for making the most of it:
1. Cast a wide net: Recruiting is a relationship business, and the same companies tend to use the same one or two recruitment agencies to find employees. If you contact a handful of different agencies, you’ll more likely to get an accurate picture of your worth (or other options).
2. Ask the recruiters about the last three positions they filled: What were the qualifications of the candidate? What did they want in terms of compensation and what did they get? Were there any extenuating circumstances that contributed to this?
3. Update your resume: Get your resume up to date before your meetings, and then ask the recruiters’ advice on how to improve it. Hey, might as well, as long as you’re there!
Some industries have unions that go to bat for their members and ensure that employers pay them a fair wage. But unfortunately, most of us don’t have access to this resource. What you do have access to, however, are networking organizations within your industry that can serve the same purpose.
Some of these groups charge a fee, some are free, but many offer guides to average salary ranges, which are goldmines of information. And almost all groups will offer opportunities for members to share information and support each other.
While you don’t necessarily want to ask someone you just met about her annual salary, you can start with peers you’re close with and see what they think the salary range would be for your position. You can be honest and let them know that you’re doing research for yourself, or, if it’s more comfortable, say that you have a friend looking to get into the industry.
To gauge where you might expect to fall within that range, you can also ask people if their company weights certain qualifications, like a graduate degree or specific types of experience, more favorably than others.
3. Job Boards
One of the best ways to know if you’re underpaid is to see what other companies are offering to people with your similar experience and skill set. It can be difficult to gather accurate data on catchall job boards like Monster.com and Craigslist (most postings state the ever-elusive “depends on experience”), but if you use sites specific to your industry, you’ll get a better idea of the opportunities that are out there.
Many times, though, salary comes down to negotiation—so you may have to actually interview to find out what a company will pay you. And while it’s OK to interview purely for research purposes, your current employer may not see it that way. Keep your intentions under wraps at your current job so that you don’t get put in an awkward situation, or worse—fired!
4. Use a Salary Calculator
If all this seems like too much work, and you’re just looking for some quick and dirty research, you can always go to a site like salary.com, which aggregates data from employers and employees to provide salary ranges for various careers. What these sites don’t always account for is education, your responsibilities, the type of organization (i.e., are you working for a startup or an established company?), or the intangible human element that comes across during interviews or when you are part of a team. So, while a salary calculator can be a starting point in your research, and it can serve as one of the data points that you collect, it shouldn’t be the only thing you rely on.
Now, what do you do if you’ve done your research, determined what you’re worth—and realized that you’re being underpaid? There aren’t easy answers, but it does open the door for you. Maybe it’s time to ask for a raise, or consider working with that recruiter to actually look for a new opportunity. Or maybe, particularly if you’re relatively happy where you are, your best bet is to sit tight (for now) until your industry picks up—but file away the knowledge that you’ll want to seriously negotiate in your next step up.
At the end of the day, use the information you’ve gathered to make an informed and rational decision on your next steps, and you’ll put yourself in the best position possible.