Don't Pay Too Much Attention to Pay

Obsessing about salary is a waste of time, but if you really need to know if your compensation is fair, here are some ways to find out

Everyone envies human-resources people, because they know what the other employees get paid. Big deal! Believe me, I worked as a corporate HR person for 20 years, and there are no big surprises about salaries. The big guys (that's a unisex term) get paid a fortune, and everyone else gets paid almost exactly what you would think they would get paid. It's really pretty boring stuff. (Now, the political squabbles between vice-presidents—that can be more intriguing.)

Sure, there are people who are overpaid and people who are underpaid, but for the most part, a typical corporation doesn't allow wide swings between the pay levels of people doing relatively similar work, even when tenure is taken into account. For that reason, employees who fret that their colleagues are earning more than they do are generally wasting their brain cells.

Research Salary Surveys

But if you're worried about your pay level relative to other people, there are steps you can take to make sure you're not miles away from your peers where compensation is concerned. First, check out, the most well-established salary-survey Web site for non-HR types. It's easy to type in your zip code, find the job title that most nearly matches your own responsibilities, and zero in on what people like you are earning in other companies.

The database (of actual salaries that employees are being paid) is enormous, but stronger in some functions than others, so use it as a first stop in your research journey, and use job postings on,, and other sites to gain further insight into the salaries (and salary ranges) that jobs like yours are commanding.

Second, you can check in with a local search person to see if your pay level is in sync with other people who do what you do. If you don't know a friendly headhunter who would provide this information for you, use an e-mail discussion group for jobhunters in your city to locate one (you can find a group on Of course, you're asking the search professional to take time out of his or her day and give you a compensation-sanity check, so do him or her a favor as well: Pass on the headhunter's name to your company's HR department, in case the people in that department need helping filling a job opening or two.

Know Thy Field

Third, you can find the trade publication that covers the function you're in, and write to the publication or call someone there to purchase a copy of the annual salary-survey issue. Nearly every print magazine that specializes in an industry or function (e.g. the field of property management, or the function of HR) publishes an annual salary-survey issue that reports on the current pay levels of people by geography, years in the field, and other dimensions. This one is good because, unlike the headhunter opinion and the data, you can actually use it as fodder if you need to approach your boss about your pay level vs. other people's.

Keep in mind, though, that a gap between your compensation level and that of other people isn't a manager's favorite reason for considering a pay adjustment. It's much more important to be able to show your manager how you contributed to the company's results (read: incremental revenue or reduced cost) than just a difference in pay between you and someone else.

Make a Difference

The very best way to demonstrate your value is to be the most hard-working, results-achieving, and pleasant employee in the department, and wait for the manager to notice on his or her own. Do you think I'm joking? I'm absolutely serious. Much better for the manager to offer a pay increase, beaming with pride over his or her good judgment in hiring you, than for you to get the same pay increase by having to ask for it. Still, you could grow old quietly demonstrating your value and waiting for the well-deserved salary increase to come, so if you've felt undervalued for six months and haven't had a hint of any good news coming, take the next step and broach the topic directly with your manager.

Either way, if you've got the nagging feeling that everyone else is getting paid more than you are, maybe you should jump over to right this minute and relieve your anxiety. Then you can get back to worrying about more important things, like the co-worker who lives on eBay (EBAY) or the one who can't get off the phone with her boyfriend in under 20 minutes. Or you could make a New Year's resolution to stop comparing yourself to others, and have your best work year ever.

Have a question for Liz, or want to suggest a topic for a column? Contact her at

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