Using What You Know About Coworkers' Pay

Websites are uncovering salary secrets. Here's how to make that information work for you.

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Who doesn't wonder what coworkers make? Most employees view salary as more than a figure for negotiation—it's also a telling measure of their value and worth to an employer. A little more openness about salary would arm workers with the knowledge that they can ask for more, be satisfied with what they're getting, or at least know what to expect if they get promoted.

Websites like Salary.com, Vault.com, and SalaryExpert.com have begun to tear away at the secrecy of salary data, and a new entry into the market aims to pull the cover back a bit more. Glassdoor.com, which launched in beta earlier this month, offers user-submitted salary information specific to positions and employers. The information is free, but available only when users submit their personal salary data or written reviews of their employer. Glassdoor reviews every submission, and its executives say that employers can also contest fictitious data.

Among the salaries submitted for Google, as of this writing 47 show its software engineers make between $50,000 and $150,000. The 43 submissions for Yahoo! software engineers show them earning $70,000 to $128,000. Much of the site's information is for the technology sector, and there are still too few entries for many companies to be useful. (An entry for a Pixar story artist shows they make bank—$155,000—but is that high or low for Pixar? It's hard to tell if there's only one piece of data to draw from.)

So while some users will log on just for the pleasure of peeping at what other people make, others will wonder how they can use the information to boost their own income.

Here are some tips:

Don't ask for more just because someone else is getting it: Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you now know that your $71,000 salary as a program manager at ABC Corp. is pretty low. You know that at least two other program managers at ABC are getting bigger paychecks. You're irritated, sure, but you should resist the temptation to storm into your boss's office and demand: "Guess what I just found out?" That approach will almost surely backfire.

"I'm not a real advocate of gunning for a salary increase," says Linda Rolie, a career counselor in Ashland, Ore. Just because you now know that a coworker makes more money than you do isn't, by itself, a compelling or enticing argument for a salary increase, Rolie says. Candidates should stand on their own merits: the contributions they've made, the money they have earned or saved the company, their relationship-building skills, their teamwork. The goal is to present yourself and your appeal in a way that is well thought out, organized, and honest.

Use salary data as a gauge: The hardest part of salary negotiating is that employees often don't know whether an offer is good, says Gregory Northcraft, a professor in the College of Business at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, and coauthor of Get Paid What You're Worth. Many people fear making a foolish choice—not negotiating for more and leaving lots of money on the table, or turning down an offer that was actually pretty high for the position and industry.

That means that getting a look at what your coworkers are making, or what the industry pays for your position, can help anchor your expectations, Northcraft says. When it comes to a job offer, you should know "whether you're in a position to push a little more or whether you're basically pushing them as hard as you're going to be able to," he says.

Make your research part of the conversation: This is different than making it the thrust of the conversation. You might try to introduce your salary research by noting that you've reviewed data on a website, and it appears that there is more room in your salary range. In a negotiation, Northcraft says it's entirely appropriate to ask what accounts for the difference in pay between individuals at the high end of the range and those at the low end—whether it's education, performance, experience, or some combination of those.

Note, too, that it may be helpful to acknowledge that some of the data you've found online could be inaccurate. Into its first week, Glassdoor says for every 10 submissions, it's rejecting about one to two reviews or salary surveys because they violate guidelines on naming names, are one-sided, or are clearly bogus.