Help for Underpaid Job Seekers: How to Handle a Below-Market Salary History

Published: Oct 09, 2008

HCareers -- There are dozens of reasons why workers sometimes end up earning far less than they’re really worth. These are tough economic times, and statistics show that the overall pace of raises and salary increases has declined for employees in virtually every industry.

Sometimes, accepting lower-than-ideal pay is a necessity. Maybe you were less than fully qualified when you took your current position, and you accepted a pay cut just to gain experience. Or perhaps the only company in your field that was hiring was a small mom ‘n’ pop shop whose pay rates fell far below the norm. Making Up for Lost Time

No matter how you wound up in your current predicament, now’s the time to chart your course to a better salary. Maryanne Wegerbauer, author of Job Offer: A How-To Negotiation Guide, reports that the quickest way to move from underpaid to well-compensated is to launch a new job search. The average raise is just 4%, so if you start out below market value, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever catch up in your current position.

But if you’re currently underpaid, is it possible to convince a new prospective employer to pony up extra pay? According to Wegerbauer, the answer is a definite yes. With a little research, preparation, and self-confidence, you should find yourself at the negotiating table with a new employer in no time at all. Here are a few guidelines to help you get started.

  • Immerse yourself in market research.

    The first step in correcting your low pay is discovering the going rates for similarly experienced workers in your industry. The Internet is a great resource for market research, but make sure you’re using a salary survey that is specific to your region and your industry. Survey your peers at other companies to get a more comprehensive idea of market value in your area.

  • Understand your true value.

    Sit down with a pad and pencil and list each of your selling points as an employee – education, training, experience, special skills, and more. What are your strengths? In which areas do you excel? How does your skill set compare to others in your field?

  • Keep your salary to yourself unless pressed.

    Once you embark on your job search, it’s best to keep mum on your salary history unless and until your prospective employer begins to ask specific questions. If there’s no way around it, preface the figure by saying that you know you’re getting paid under market value, and offer a brief explanation of the circumstances that resulted in your less-than-ideal pay.

  • Add value to your brand.

    While you’re preparing for and conducting your job search, take every opportunity to increase your market value to prospective employers. Sign up for seminars, learn new skills, and network like crazy – do anything that demonstrates your ambition and your willingness to learn. These factors will all come into play when you’re discussing salary with prospective employers.

  • Sell yourself.

    Before you sit down to talk pay with a prospective employer, take inventory of your skills and accomplishments. Develop a concise pitch that encapsulates everything you can offer to the company, as well as a brief, honest explanation of your current pay situation and why it is not commensurate with your value. Be sure to adopt and maintain a confident tone, rather than an apologetic one.

    Working your way out of an under-market-value salary can be challenging, but it can be done. Armed with market research, persistence, and an unshakable sense of your true value, you should be on the road to better pay in no time at all.

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