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Salary: How much should I be making?

June 23, 1999
by Pat McClellan

The most common business question sent in by readers is "How much should I be making?". The problem is... no one seems to know. And while most questions posted to the listservs get pounced on by multiple respondents, questions like these go unanswered. Why? Because nobody really knows the answer.

Salary is a difficult thing to discuss for a couple of reasons. First, people are uncomfortable sharing infomation about how much money they make. For good or bad (probably bad), most people associate a person's worth -- or their own worth -- by this monetary metric. Second, employers don't want you discussing it. The worst thing that ever happened to management is when laborers decided to share info on their wages, which of course led to re-negotiating wages as a group (or "union".)

I remember hearing a story a while back about an executive who left a Silicon Valley company under duress. His last act of defiance was to send an email to everyone in the company, publishing the salaries of all the workers. Why does this seem so outrageous? Why should management care? Because it gives the workers power to negotiate, it tells them how much they are valued (or not valued) in the company, and it informs the underpaid that they should wake up and stop getting taken advantage of.

So back to the question: How much should you be making? The simple answer is... it depends. It depends on a multitude of interrelated factors, the significance of which probably varies with the individual. Most of these influencers are at work in any line of work. Keep in mind, we're not talking about what should matter, or what is legal to matter, rather, we want to focus on what really seems to matter. They include the following:

I can't defend any good reason why gender, race, attractiveness or age should matter. Of course they shouldn't matter, and we have laws that are aimed at preventing this. But we all know that this kind of discrimination is still prevalent. When I think back to the crowd of developers at UCON, I can't help wondering if there is some discrimination going on. Most of the developers I saw fit into a fairly focused demographic... and I can't imagine why.

When the discriminatory act determines whether a person is hired or fired or promoted, then that's easier to spot and prove. But when it manifests itself in small percentages of wages... that's easy to explain away as related to "negotiating skills".

There are some other factors related to our business which seem to have some significance in determining salary. Those factors include:

I can't really say which of these is "better". We just don't have the data to know. But we're going to try to change that.

Salary Survey

Director Online is now hosting an online salary survey (database). This survey will appear continuously in our Features section. We'll collect data from all of our readers. All the data is anonymous -- you will never be asked to enter your name, email or any other personal ID. A cookie will be set in your browser so that you can update your own data if you get a raise or change jobs. The data will expire after one year, so at any given time, you'll be able to access the results covering the last calendar year to date.

How valid is this survey? Well, it is what it is. We can't police it to make sure that people tell the truth. But there's no benefit to entering false data, so we don't see why anyone would lie. Cookies have their limitations, but anonymity is more important so that's as much personalization as we're going to do. And we're not professional researchers, so you might have disagreements with the way we word some of the questions. Please try to pick that answers that seem to be the best choice for you -- even if it's not an exact match.

We're trying very hard to ask the questions that many of you have told us matter. And please recognize the fact that we have tried to find a balance between having enough choices to questions and yet still maintain identifiable and statistically valid segments.

The results will be displayed like a compound search on a search engine. You'll be able to select up to three categories and it will return the corresponding results. For example...

Return salary information for people who...

Educational background = Computer Science
Director Expertise = Advanced
Location = California

As the database becomes populated, there will be a statistically valid number of people who meet these criteria. If so, the salary info will be displayed -- low, high, median, and average for the group. It'll be up to you to determine the factors which you think most influence your salary. Compare different combinations to see which seem to matter. Obviously, as time goes on and more people enter their data, the validity of the sample will increase. So be aware that if only 3 records match the criteria you select, you shouldn't put too much credibility on the results.

The Bottom Line

This salary survey has the potential to provide you with information of great importance. But simply knowing what others make doesn't change anything. Only you can turn that information into negotiation power. Ultimately, you're worth what you believe you're worth.

Take the survey yourself.

For further reading:
Negotiating Tactics

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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