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Updated Jan 29, 2024

What to Do If You Think You’re Underpaid

Being underpaid is frustrating and demoralizing. Here are the steps to take if you think your salary warrants a raise.

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
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This guide was reviewed by a Business News Daily editor to ensure it provides comprehensive and accurate information to aid your buying decision.

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When you think you’re underpaid, you feel unappreciated and overworked, and it makes doing your job a drag. Plus, sometimes, feeling underpaid is more than just a negative emotion — your salary might objectively be below average. Discovering this discrepancy and developing the right game plan can help you take the steps necessary to increase your salary. Sure, pursuing a raise can be an intimidating process, but it’s worth it to feel better about your work. 

What to do if you’re underpaid

If you’ve determined you’re underpaid, there are a few steps you can take to start pursuing a much-deserved raise. Here’s what to do if you want to address your salary with your employer and seek a pay increase.

1. Keep a level head.

Realizing you’re underpaid can lead to negative emotions, ranging from a newfound lack of motivation to full-on anger. It’s OK to feel these emotions, but it’s unprofessional to bring them into your workplace conversations. 

Take a moment to find a state of calm, and bring this levelheadedness into your eventual discussions about deserving a higher salary. Whatever you feel the reason for your underpayment is, the old adage “kill them with kindness” still applies.

2. Gather evidence you’re unpaid. 

Browse salary survey sites such as LinkedIn, Glassdoor and Indeed to find the average pay for your job. Research the salaries of people who have the same position at other companies. Also, see if you can determine the salaries of co-workers with the same title at your organization. 

“The first step is to figure out what you’re worth by understanding average salaries for people in your role and those surrounding it,” said Rachel Bitte, founder and executive coach at RB Consulting. 

While online job posting sites can help you determine if you’re underpaid, be sure to account for your location and job title when you’re using these resources to figure out if your pay is appropriate.    

If you go into a salary negotiation without doing your research, it could hurt your career and chances of getting what you deserve. “Go into any salary conversation without knowing the facts, and you run the risk of botching the whole process,” Bitte said.

“Ask former bosses and colleagues who no longer work with you for a going rate,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster. “Ask them to consider if they were to hire someone with your experience, skill set and credentials, what would the salary be?”

Salemi also suggested asking your company for pay information. She shared some organizations provide full transparency to staff salaries through online databases or human resources. “It’s OK to ask for pay ranges for your position; just be mindful that pay ranges may overlap, and the high end of your current role may be at the low end of the role above you,” she said. 

3. Identify the reasons you deserve more pay.

You may believe you automatically deserve more pay if your salary is below your industry or company average, but your supervisor may need more convincing. After all, in many small businesses, money is tight and labor is the most expensive cost. You may find your organization is reticent to determine a salary that better addresses your concerns, but a well-reasoned argument and deft negotiating skills can make all the difference.

You may also fare better at your request for a raise if you show your interest in growing with the company. It’s even better to show how you would plan to grow with the company. This way, you make a long-term case for your raise as a business investment worth making.

Track your accomplishments with the company and be detailed when describing them. Has the budget you manage grown? Have you saved the company money with a good idea? Did you close an important deal? Bring up specific points to strengthen your negotiations.

4. Schedule a well-timed meeting with your supervisor.

It’s one thing to meet with your manager to request a raise. It’s another thing entirely to time your ask to your advantage. There are certain times of year or points in project timelines when asking for a raise is more likely to go over well. Play your cards right in terms of timing, evidence and reasons why you deserve a raise, and you might just get that salary bump.

Salemi recommended asking for a raise after you’ve just accomplished something big and it’s fresh in your boss’s mind. “Another time is before or during a salary review, not after,” she added. “Depending on the company, raises only occur once a year, so if you miss that window, you’re out of luck.”

What to do if you don’t get a raise

So, you’ve done your research and know what you’re worth, but your manager doesn’t want to give you a raise. What should you do?

“Don’t give up,” Bitte said. “Most younger workers presume that a ‘no’ is the end of the conversation, but that’s simply not the case. It’s often unlikely your boss will give in on the first ask, so think of salary negotiations as an ongoing conversation.”

Bitte suggested following up a couple of months later and noting the contributions you’ve made to the company since your last conversation. However, if your manager still isn’t willing to give you an increase after multiple discussions, it may be time to start looking for a new gig. 

“If you ask for a raise and receive a ‘no,’ one option is to stay and continue to be underpaid and overworked,” Salemi said. “Another option is to leave and search for a new job.”

What does underpayment mean?

It’s important to have a clear understanding of “underpayment.” Most people think underpayment means they’re getting paid less than they feel they’re worth. In reality, however, the market dictates what someone deserves to be paid. Therefore, it’s critical to discuss salaries with co-workers and former bosses with this definition of underpayment in mind. If you’re being paid less than someone else for the same job in the same industry and location, especially if you have more experience than that person, you’re being underpaid.

FYIDid you know
Looking at job postings on LinkedIn alternatives such as ZipRecruiter, Mediabistro and Monster can give you extra data proving you’re underpaid. Browse these sites to be certain your salary meets the definition of underpayment.

How to tell if you’re underpaid

One of the most common questions people ask about salaries is how to find out if they’re underpaid. After all, it can be uncomfortable to ask co-workers about their salaries for comparison. However, there are some signs of being underpaid that don’t involve being too nosy.

1. Your responsibilities have increased, but you didn’t get a raise.

Whether you took on a larger workload when a co-worker left or you were promoted, a change in responsibilities should always come with appropriate compensation. However, suppose you weren’t given a raise for your increased workload. In that case, it’s a sure sign you’re underpaid compared to what people in your position deserve.

2. You haven’t had a performance review.

Performance reviews are a key way for employers to evaluate and track employee performance. Since they’re dedicated to discussing the work you’ve been doing and the steps you can take to grow in the company, they’re an ideal opportunity to discuss salary. If you haven’t had a performance review, chances are you haven’t had a natural opportunity to ask your employer about your salary and the company’s latest compensation plan.

3. Your salary does not reflect specialized training or education.

If you have a master’s degree or advanced education or have specialized knowledge in your industry, you are worth more to your employer (and competitors). Your salary should take into account what you bring to your position and the business by way of your professional development.

4. Your salary has not been adjusted for inflation.

Known as cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), some companies build these in automatically each year to help salaries keep up with the rising prices of daily living across the board. If you have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, it may be time to discuss a general raise that considers the increased living costs in your area. 

Did You Know?Did you know
In addition to limiting your earnings, stagnant wages affect small businesses. Some of these negative impacts, such as reduced employee productivity and decreased community spending, are great talking points when broaching the topic of a raise with your manager.

5. You’ve been told you’re underpaid by a contact or recruiter.

If you feel uncomfortable surveying your co-workers about their salaries, outside sources in similar positions can help give you some perspective. Contacts at other companies may feel more comfortable sharing their salaries with you, as you don’t work together and it won’t create tension. In addition, recruiters who talk to dozens of companies and hundreds of candidates have a good sense of what appropriate salary ranges should be.

6. More recent hires make more money than you.

If you see job listings from your company offering salary ranges at or more than what you make, it may indicate you should get a raise. Keep an eye on your company’s job listings and take note of what compensation they advertise publicly.

7. The company has grown, but you have not benefited personally.

If your company recently acquired a big client, received funding or launched a new service, these are signs the organization as a whole is in a growth position. If you’ve contributed to these successes but haven’t been monetarily rewarded, it may be worth discussing special compensation.

The most underpaid jobs

Certain jobs tend to deserve much higher pay for what they provide to society, and yet people in these roles are routinely underpaid. These include:

  • Public school teachers. The average salary for public school teachers is $58,486, and though this figure might not appear extremely low at first glance, it lacks some context. Teachers work far beyond standard school-day hours. Developing lesson plans and grading papers and exams is all but a part-time job. Given the immense amount of labor involved in teaching, this annual salary is pretty small.
  • Paramedics. At $48,695 per year, the average salary for paramedics doesn’t reflect these workers’ life-saving duties. Worse yet, the high end of the average salary range for paramedics — $54,405 — isn’t much higher.
  • Social workers. The average salary for social workers with a master’s degree is $71,534. This amount doesn’t quite cover the high expenses of paying for graduate school or account for the mental toll this line of work can take.
  • Journalists. The average salary for journalists is $55,960, a low figure given the amount of work these employees do outside traditional 40-hour workweeks. Plus, journalism is crucial to holding figures in power accountable, and that role in society is simply invaluable.

People who work in these positions should seize every opportunity for a raise.

From underpaid to properly compensated

It can be angering at first to learn you’re underpaid, but confirming your suspicions with cold, hard evidence can ultimately prove liberating. Showing your supervisor you’re underpaid goes hand in hand with asking for more money based on your performance. With the right data on your side, underpaying you starts to look like a poor decision on their part, and the salary you deserve could be within reach.

Stella Morrison contributed to this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article. 

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Max Freedman, Business Operations Insider and Senior Analyst
Max Freedman has spent nearly a decade providing entrepreneurs and business operators with actionable advice they can use to launch and grow their businesses. Max has direct experience helping run a small business, performs hands-on reviews and has real-world experience with the categories he covers, such as accounting software and digital payroll solutions, as well as leading small business lenders and employee retirement providers. Max has written hundreds of articles for Business News Daily on a range of valuable topics, including small business funding, time and attendance, marketing and human resources.
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