Why It's Better to Be Underpaid

Last Updated Aug 18, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

Culturally, we keep salary information confidential. I'm not just talking about company rules, I'm talking about in our private lives as well. Seriously, how many of your neighbors know how much money you make? (Of course, the first time I met my nosy neighbor she asked me straight out how much money we made. I said, "we do all right." She then started throwing out dollar figures and asking, "is that right?" She's not normal though.)

But, what if everyone knew? How would they react?

This is on my mind because the City of Bell, California, just revealed that several city officials were grossly overpaid. Turns out that the city residents were distinctly not happy about it.
City Manager Robert Rizzo, who made $800,000 a year, Police Chief Randy Adams, paid $457,000, and Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia, at $376,288 annually, all resigned last month after a closed session of the city council. As part of the deal, they will not get severance packages, the [Los Angeles] Times said.
As a result of this scandal, the California Attorney General's office is now requiring cities to disclose salaries in their financial reports.

Now, I know you aren't paid $800,000 a year. (And if you are, tell me what you do and I'm sure I can learn how to do it. Unless you're a neurosurgeon or something because I could never even win that stupid Operation game and no one wants me operating on their brain.) And I know that right now you are thinking, "I am NOT overpaid. I am underpaid!"

But what if everyone actually knew your salary? Would your co-workers and direct reports agree that you are underpaid? What about your clients? Would they think, "Gee, she needs a raise," or, "holy cow, it must be nice to make that much money sitting on your heiny all day"?

You may think that what you want is to be overpaid, but I'm telling you what you really want is to be underpaid. Oh, not underpaid in that sense that your compa-ratio is too low. But, underpaid in the sense that you want your clients, your co-workers and your direct reports to really value your work. Value it so much that if they knew how much you were making they would want to see you get a raise.

Because if these people value your work far above what your paycheck says, then the probability of your boss valuing your work above your paycheck level increases. And a boss that highly values you is a boss that will help you get the developmental opportunities, plum assignments and promotions you want. These will all eventually result in a higher salary. (Although, unfortunately, it's doubtful that salary will ever reach the astronomical levels found in Bell California.)

If your boss values your work below your salary that makes you a prime candidate for a layoff. Anytime a boss thinks, "Gee, I can get someone else to do this job for a lot less money," your days are numbered. But, if the boss thinks, "I'd have to pay at least $10,000 more to get someone else to do this job," you're much more secure.

Now, if you are one of the few out there that thinks you are overpaid, I have a job for you to do. Work to make yourself underpaid. Work harder and smarter. Learn new things. Mentor new employees. Stop going for the ride. Because, some day, someone in HR is going to mess up and leave a copy of your department's salaries on the copy machine and your co-workers are going to find out how much money you make. Make sure you're worth it.
Photo by pfala, Flickr cc 2.0
Thumbnail photo (previous page) by Borman818, Flickr cc 2.0

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