Why Your Salary Is Unfair

Last Updated Oct 10, 2011 8:31 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I have been chronically underpaid by my company and obviously the way I am going about remedying this has not worked. I am hoping you can provide some pointers.
For salary increase guidelines my company has a policy where the industry range for each given position level plotted on a bell curve is used as the basis.
The company professes to pay between the 25th and the 75th percentile range on the bell curve.
I have consistently been outside this range, to the left (past the low range) of this bell curve.
I got a 2% increase last year, made no difference to my relative position on the bell curve, got no increase the year before.
My performance reviews say I do a good job and am performing at or higher than expected level for my position.
Having asked for feedback on why my salary doesn't reflect this, I am told by the manager--she is new to this position--but feedback from other managers has something to do with it. What exactly, I am not privy to, but I did have problems with my previous Team Lead, so did others. He got fired last year!
The department gets a lump sum and a roundtable manager discussion ensues on how that pot is divided.
I feel I am being treated very unfairly.
When you start out with a low salary it can be almost impossible to bring it up without changing companies. Companies have all sorts of policies that prevent high salary increases. With the bad economy, I can say that a 2% raise is probably a lot more than many of my readers received. However, that's little comfort when your salary is still in the toilet.

The pot of money increase is a very common method. When budgets for the upcoming year are calculated, the powers that be (i.e. not your boss, unless you're reporting into the CFO) say, "This year we have 3 percent for salary increases." Your boss then gets a pot of money worth 3 percent of her entire staff's salary. She has to divide this up.

To make it more complicated, your performance rating is frequently taken into consideration as well. But, just because your rating is good, it doesn't mean that your coworker's ratings aren't better. Then we have to talk about your relative importance to the company. If you're a high performing salesperson, your value will be much greater than if you're an admin. (Although, interestingly enough, recruiters tell me that finding good administrative staff is far more difficult than finding other types of employees. Still, many people consider this type of job as one that is easily replaceable.) So, let's assume that your boss has 5 direct reports, including you, and the other 4 employees positions are considered more valuable than yours.

She can give you a big raise, and in turn, make the other 4 employees unhappy and more likely to leave. Or she can give you a 2 percent raise and the others higher raises, thus ensuring their happiness. And let's face it, if you're below the 25th percentile on a bell curve, you're not the company's priority. (Sorry!)

Here's another crazy thing. If you quit, your boss can hire someone to replace you smack at the 50th percentile (midpoint of the salary range) with no questions asked. But, to give you a raise that brings you to that level would require sign offs from everyone up to and including the senior team (depending on how big your company is, this may be completely futile). Does that make sense? Current, valued employee can't get a raise up to midpoint, but someone off the street can be hired in straight at that level! Yeah!

And even to get you a raise that brings you into the range requires money from other departments to be allotted to you. (Because there's no way your boss can just give you a big raise and leave your coworkers with nothing.) Your manager has said other managers are not pleased with your performance (for whatever reason), so she's not going to waste her political capital on you. Just not going to happen.

So, what to do, what to do? First, here are some things to think about.
  • Are you the only person doing your job?
    • If not, are you the same race/gender/ethnicity/age as your coworkers in the same (or similar position)?
    • Are the other people paid more than you are, or are all of you below scale?
  • Could you make more money elsewhere?
    • How do you know? Have you applied for other jobs?
    • Is the salary range for your position even accurate? Perhaps you are being paid correctly and the scale is just wrong.
  • Are you willing to leave this company?
    • Are there reasons other than salary that you want to stay there? Commute, work life balance, etc?
    • If you are willing to leave, how soon can you go?
If you can show that you're being paid less than your coworkers and you happen to be a different category than they are, there's a good chance HR will be all over getting you a raise.

Otherwise, make an appointment with your boss (don't just pop in her office, you want time for this), to discuss your salary. If you have a responsible HR person in your company, invite her as well. If you have one that is not trustworthy, forget it. Present her with the same chart you spoke about and say, plainly and clearly, "My salary is below the 25th percentile, which is outside of company policy. What do I need to do to get this rectified?" Then shut up and listen.

She'll say, "Well, you just got an increase blah, blah, blah."

You respond, "I understand that. However, my salary is still outside of company policy. What do I need to do to get this problem cleared up?"

She'll either tell you or she'll be forced to tell you that it's not possible. If she tells you what to do, do it, and make sure you follow up regularly to see that she keeps her part. Document everything.

If she says it's just not possible, then you need to decide if you want this job or not. You may decide that it's better to leave.

If you push this issue and are too obnoxious you could find yourself pushed out the door. Remember that you are easy to replace and easy to replace at a higher salary than what you're earning. It stinks, but it's reality.

But, you certainly can push--just not obnoxiously. You also need to find out why other managers don't like you. This may mean talking to them directly. It could be a holdover form your former rotten boss, but it could also be something that you are doing.

As I said at the beginning, it's very difficult to get a large raise. So, in the future, make so you negotiate your salaries when you are hired in the first place. It saves a lot of headaches.

For further reading:
Have a workplace dilemma? Send your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.
Photo by Stuart Pilbrow, Flickr cc 2.0

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