Can we end awkward salary conversations?

Posted by | September 7, 2021 | For your career, Salary negotitation

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By Rhiannon Robinson

Money. What makes it SO hard to talk about? My anxieties about the ‘money conversation’ have been a roadblock in getting the salary I need and deserve for years. I’m not the only one… when I opened up this conversation with female friends, horror stories of negotiating pay crouched in the office stairwell or with a toddler on one hip rolled in.

These experiences are one of the reasons I believe so passionately in pay transparency. I’m so proud that Do Good Jobs is making the salary field mandatory for all roles from September 1st as part of our commitment to #showthesalary. We’re known as New Zealand’s #1 ethical jobs board, and we believe this is what we need to do to honour that.

Sure, showing the salary band isn’t going to completely solve the issue – some negotiations will still happen – but at least there will be some frame to negotiate within. I’m opening my Pandora’s box of terrible salary conversations in support of #showthesalary:


How Low Can You Go?

I had an interview for a job in my field after a career pivot. The organisation was an industry leader and I was filled with imposter syndrome. The interview progressed along well, and I felt a connection with the team. Despite the career pivot, I had bags of transferable skills and a relevant qualification. The last question in the interview floored me. “As a not-for-profit, people’s salaries are our biggest cost, can you give us a sense of the lowest you could go?” The lowest I could go!? There wasn’t even a band on the ad….. I panicked and completely lowballed myself. They seemed delighted, and I felt there was no way to take it back. I took on extra responsibilities, but there was never any money in the budget for a pay raise. The learning curve starts here.


Pay Disparity Grenades

“Have you seen this?” One of my colleagues slapped a printed-out email in front of me. They seemed angry. A ‘send-all’ slip up had led to the salaries of a large number of staff being shared with the whole organisation. There were some huge issues in the organisation at the time, including pay disparity and inequity. We’d all been semi-aware that senior leadership earned disproportionately high salaries, but one group of staff were being paid shockingly low salaries. Lower than seemed fair. Wait, lower than me? There was no question that staff in this group (including the colleague with the email) were more highly skilled than me, and their job was demanding and critical to operations. The conversation with my colleague was upsetting, sad, and (you guessed it) hugely awkward.


Desperate Negotiations In The Mail Room

Despite the tendency to overthink career choices, I’d accepted a job offer in what turned out to be a toxic workplace. A few weeks in, I was ready to activate the emergency evacuation seat/ 90-day trial tap out. I luckily still had some irons in the fire and applications open. Unluckily, by nature, the toxic workplace kept us working non-stop all day (the senior staff got Uber Eats to their desks at lunch) which wasn’t great for fielding job calls. Cue salary negotiations in the Mail Room between the metal lockers, dancing away every time a courier came by to do their pickup. “I can hear a strange beeping noise…” said the caller. It did not help my cause.

Luckily, I’ve built confidence as I’ve progressed in my career and gotten more comfortable advocating for myself. I’ve learned that it’s ok to ask for time and space to consider a job offer’s salary, and what my skills are worth on the market. I’m not giving myself a pat on the back though – I’ve been working in the careers space for the past few years and have had coaching. I should be bossing this by now – but I’m not! One of the people who is actually bossing it (and helping other women do the same) is my ex-colleague and mentor Carla Rey Vasquez. Carla is a not-for-profit veteran, an advocate for equity in the workplace, and one of the most badass women I know. I sat down with her to unpack why this is such a difficult conversation to have, particularly for women:

“ Women’s ability to negotiate their salary is a key feminist issue. In my early career as a gender researcher, I came across article after article that mentioned how women always felt under qualified to apply for higher-paying jobs and how they were unlikely to ask to negotiate their pay. This was very different to how men acted, so these were contributing factors towards the pay gap. Ever since then I have always encouraged friends and colleagues to negotiate their pay, no matter the circumstances.”

I am one of the lucky people to benefit from this encouragement. Carla coached me in my last job search and helped me bench myself and prepare to negotiate salary and benefits. I asked her to share some of her key advice for salary negotiation, including some of the tips that helped me:

“The interesting dynamic with salary pay negotiations is that applicants are often so eager to be getting a job that they forget that by the time they get an offer, the cards are in their favour and they hold the best position to strike a better deal. For me negotiating, even if you are not successful, is always a useful step. It shows your new employer that you know the value of your work and your contribution and that you are not scared to have challenging conversations. 

Every time you negotiate you get better at it and learn skills that help for the next time. Even when an employer can’t necessarily offer you a higher salary, it opens the conversation for other benefits: flexibility of hours, professional development, insurance, well-being initiatives. Think about what else matters to you. It also builds a precedent for asking for a pay increase in the future. Don’t be tricked here though, often in the for-purpose sector, we are lured in by the promise that you are contributing to a great cause, so the salary is not as high as in other industries. I just don’t buy that rhetoric. Most of us work as a means to earn a living, and you should not be subsidising organisations that can’t afford to pay for what your labour is worth. I really recommend Dan Paloza’s TED talk ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ if you want to learn more about this.”

Every word of this rings true for me. I asked Carla for her final words of advice:

“Do your research, know what your work is worth, and remember to ask for mid to top of the range at your next interview.” 

Our korero drives home why #showthesalary is important for individuals, but I think it is for organisations too. These days if I’m job seeking and a role doesn’t at least have a salary band I’m likely to scroll past. That’s a privileged truth, but a truth all the same. It sends me a message about the organisation – and that message is that they’ve got a reason not to list the salary. I’d love to make awkward salary conversations a thing of the past – there are enough awkward conversations to deal with in everyday life… Like saying “you too” instead of “thanks” when the person at the ticket counter tells you to enjoy the movie (every time!).

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