I’m Making $5K Less Than the Person Who Had My Job Before Me, Help!


I worked at an office as a secretary/receptionist part-time for two years in college (sophomore and junior). I loved it, learned a lot, and it seemed that they loved me as well. Before the start of my senior year, they told me that they were going to have to turn the position into a full-time one since the department was growing and they were worried that a part-time person would be overwhelmed. Since I was still in school, they wouldn’t be able to hire me. I watched them hire a full-time replacement, and then I left, still on great terms with everyone.

Flash forward to a year later, right as I was graduating. The person that they hired suddenly received a better position in a different department, and they were scrambling to replace her. It was great timing for me, since I was a new graduate with experience in the department and even the actual job role. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job, which I’ve been in for the last four months and enjoying greatly—until I discovered something that made me kind of angry: I was offered the extreme minimum salary, just over $25,000, and told it was non-negotiable. Since I had a good idea of the job I was getting myself into and figured it was better than starting a job search all over again, I accepted.

But recently, my boss asked me to shred a pile of papers for her, which is a pretty commonplace occurrence. I wasn’t looking too closely at them, but the one on the top jumped out at me—it was an offer letter from last year to the person who originally replaced me—and they offered her $5,000 more than they did me. Now I don’t know what I should do. I feel weird since I probably wasn’t supposed to see this, and so I don’t want to say anything, but I’m also angry. I’m more qualified for this job, have a more applicable degree, and was already trained when they hired me. Why am I worth less money? Did they just (correctly) assume that I wouldn’t fight their non-negotiable offer?

I have my first performance review coming up in a couple months, and I want to ask for a raise, but I don’t know how I should approach it. Should I let on that I know they were paying the last girl more? Or is there a better way to deal with this? Help?! — J.

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A few years ago, I was offered my boss’s job after she accepted a new job at another company. The offer came with a shiny new title and at the time, what I believed was a decent salary increase. I accepted the offer, worked hard and proved to be good at my job. A few months into it, I met my former boss for lunch who wanted to check in and see how things were. Things were fine, I said. I then described the kind of hours I was working and said that since I was doing such a good job, I’d probably ask for a raise after six months on the job. She asked how much I was earning, which was about $50,000 at the time.

“Oh my god, they’re taking advantage of you,” she said. “Get a new job, please.” She revealed that when she had my job, she was basically earning twice as much as I was.

“Oh,” I said.

Later, this was confirmed to me by another senior executive at the company who had left the company and had kept in touch with me. “Yeah, you’re young, so they took advantage of you. Sorry about that.”

“If they don’t give you better money, quit, and I’ll help you find something else,” my former boss said to me in an email later. “You’re good. You can do better.”

And here is one of those moments where I came to understand one of the things that later became part of the foundation for this site: We don’t talk enough about money. We don’t talk about what we earn and employers often take advantage of that (the National Labor Relations Act gives workers the right to talk about what they earn among themselves and others in the workplace, as long as those discussions aren’t happening when people are suppose to be working).

Some research on sites like Glassdoor revealed that I was earning toward the bottom of what I should be earning. That, combined with the knowledge that the person who previously had my job had earned twice as much as me, convinced me to request a meeting with my boss where I voiced my concerns. I brought the research I had with me. I did not say anything about what I had learned about what I should be earning from the executives who had left the company.

I was told that earnings were down, and operating budgets were cut, and that yes I was good at my job but that I could not receive a salary increase at this time. So I asked for a timeline for when I could expect a salary increase. I was given three months. We also discussed different projects that would be occurring within that timeframe and the role the success of those projects would factor into everything. For the next three months, I killed it. My next meeting with my boss was short. “Sit down, you’re getting a raise. Let’s talk about it.”

So.

Why are you worth less money? There are a lot of politics that go into a question like that. It could simply be that you are worth less money because that is all that the budget allows. It could be that they’re taking advantage of the fact that you are a recent grad and can offer you a take-it-or-leave-it salary.

Leave whatever it is that the person who had your job previously was earning out of your performance review and focus instead on what you need to be earning. We all feel like we should be earning what we’re worth, but what we’re worth is also determined by factors outside of our control, like what the market will bear. Arm yourself with research into what similar positions in your area pays, and ask for something within reason. You should be earning enough to pay your bills and hopefully save a little something as well. If you’re not earning that and they won’t give it to you, it’s time to move on.

If you can’t get a salary increase, ask for a timeline, and what you can be doing to get a raise. And then most important of all, regardless of what happens, continue to kill it. If you can prove that you are good at your job, you can impress other employers with that fact later down the line.

And remember, this is your first job out of college. It won’t be your last.

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