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What to Do When You’re Underpaid

Questions to ask yourself.

Paul Hill, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Paul Hill, Pixabay, Public Domain

I’ve changed irrelevant details to protect my client’s anonymity.

A client of mine has a bachelor’s in communication studies and a master's in art from Stanford, and is unusually personable. He is in his second year working at a major nonprofit in San Francisco as an admin. He’s paid $38,000 a year, and in today’s session, he understandably complained of being underpaid. Here’s a paraphrase:

Client: They’re such hypocrites. In public, they crow about the importance of treating workers well, and they pay me $38,000?! I couldn’t live in Idaho on that and in San Francisco, no way. I’m one step from an SRO (welfare hotel). I’m scared to look for another job because I love it—people bring me green tea, tofu salad, greens from their garden. It’s cool, I get lots of praise; they all say I'm doing a great job. And it’s not easy to land any job with benefits—this organization does pay half my health insurance. I asked for a raise and my boss said, “You’re paid the going rate. So many people want to work for a non-profit.” What should I do?

Me: What you should do depends in part on how easily you feel you could find a better job—not just in pay, but overall.

Client: It’s usually taken me a good few months to find a decent job. And honestly, this one is my favorite. And the job market is still depressed by COVID, and now with the Delta variant...

Me: Apart from your practically assessing the risk/reward of pushing harder for a raise, there’s the psychological: One person in your situation might be so angry at the organization’s hypocrisy that he’d give an ultimatum or even quit without having another job offer. Such a person probably also has a high tolerance for risk. But a different person might think, “Well, we’re all hypocrites on some level, and I’m scared to look for a job, so I just need to swallow it.”

Client: I did ask my boss again for a raise and she said she’d get back to me. It’s been four days though.

Me: The way your boss and the organization works, should you give it more time?

Client: I should give it another week, but then what?

Me: Core to your personality is to not be pushy, so I’m wondering if what’s right for you is to not push any more for a raise, although you might ask for some non-cash benefit like their paying more of your health insurance, giving you paid training, or letting you work from home more. Then, without quitting, quietly or not quietly look for a better job. Sometimes, the only thing that will make an employer budge is the fear of losing you.

Client: I’m inclined to just accept things even if they don't budge.

Me: Before accepting that this is your lot in life, you are a bright, educated, friendly guy with an advanced degree in the arts. Should you, verbally or in writing, explain to a higher-up that you have much more you could contribute, citing some specifics?

Client: Yes, I really should do that. It makes perfect sense.

Me: A lot of times, something rationally makes sense but the client, deep down, knows that he or she won't do it. How about you?

Client: I think I will.

Me: If we were in Vegas, should we bet that you would?

Client: (hesitating) Yes.

Me: Would the oddsmaker make the odds even money, 2 to 1, 10 to 1?

Client: 2 to 1.

Me: What could make it 10 to 1?

Client: Get my girlfriend on my case.

We laugh.

The Takeaway

As usual, one size doesn’t fit all. If you feel underpaid, ask yourself:

  • How aggressive should you be?
  • Is there a non-cash benefit that would be more acceptable and perhaps even more desirable? After all, due to taxes, you'll lose a portion of anything you negotiate.
  • Should you quietly or even not quietly look for another job?
  • If extra money is more important than your free time, should you look for a side-hustle?
  • Sometimes, you decide you need to stay put even if you feel the employer is taking advantage of you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t otherwise improve your life. In your case, how might you try to do that?

When I first started as a career counselor, I encouraged tough negotiation. But I’ve found that the risk-reward ratio of too-tough negotiation may not be worth it. Don't let ego get in the way. Think of what's wise in your situation.

I read this aloud on YouTube.