How to tell your boss you are overworked - and underpaid


Liz Ryan, Contributor 

Dear Liz,

I've been in my job for two years. I like the job, my teammates and my customers.

I don't have any problems with my manager "Lawrence." He's a smart guy and he works hard. Lawrence holds himself to high standards and that's great, but he also overworks and underpays his employees, including me.

Since I started the job I've learned a lot by teaching myself new tools, and I do a lot of self-study on my own time too. My job description has expanded so much in the past two years that I'm now drastically underpaid.

At this point if Lawrence wanted to replace me he would have to pay someone at least $1500 a month more than he pays me.

It's the same way with my teammates. Lawrence hires people in at a low rate and either trains them or gets them to train themselves.

The work itself is interesting but the hours are exhausting. Sometimes we work until 9:00 at night and Lawrence gets us pizza. That gets old. I have a girlfriend now and she's tired of never seeing me because I work all the time.

Working this hard I should have money in the bank but I don't because I'm underpaid. How do I bring up the topic with Lawrence? Like I said he's a good guy but he must know many or most of us on his team could earn more money somewhere else.

Thanks Liz -




Dear Hector,

If you're patient and you don't want to change jobs, you can try to sell Lawrence on the idea of paying you more and/or backing off on your workload.

Because of Employment at Will, most folks in your situation don't bother trying to educate the boss. They start a job search and quit, instead.

Employment at Will is the doctrine that lets employers in the U.S. fire people for no reason if they want to (assuming there's no collective bargaining agreement or individual employment contract governing the relationship, and assuming the termination is not for a discriminatory reason).

Employment at Will makes working people afraid to broach topics like "I need a pay raise to stay current with the market," so they keep their mouths shut instead of speaking up.

They look at their situation as objectively and conclude that the time they would invest in selling their boss on their pay raise concept (and/or a more reasonable workload) is time they could be investing in their job search, instead.

They decide that if their boss is as clueless as the boss seems to be about prevailing market wages and reasonable work hours, then there is no point in trying to sell the boss on a pay increase.

They will get their pay increase from the next boss!

If you love your job and think that your efforts might bear fruit there's no reason not to hang around and work your campaign on Lawrence, but if he happens to get angry that you brought up the topic of pay and workload, you need to be ready to job-hunt.

That's a sad thing to have to write, but Employment at Will makes it a real concern. In too many fearful workplaces, merely bringing up the topic of below-market pay is enough to put you on your manager's bad side — and at that point, your job security could be at risk.

If you want to sell Lawrence on the idea of giving you and a pay raise you'll need to do some research. Start by researching pay levels for the job you're in and the jobs your coworkers do. Salary and Payscale are good resources and Glassdoor includes some salary data too.

Keep in mind that plenty of managers like Lawrence have ready answers to the question "Why does our company pay below-market wages?" Here are some of the most common replies:

1. We pay below market because it's a great place to work!

2. We pay below market because we're a start-up and don't have much cash.

3. We pay below market because we're a big company and have awesome employee benefits.

4. We pay below market because we could replace you in two seconds so why don't you quit yapping and get back to your desk?

When the energy feels right, sit down with Lawrence and let him know that you love your job but that you'd looking forward to a bigger-than-average pay increase on your next performance review. Tell him why. Show him the data you compiled.

Keep in mind that if Lawrence doesn't think he has a problem, he's not likely to be receptive to your pitch.

The best way to get Lawrence to realize he has a problem with under-market pay levels is to leave the company and support any coworkers who decide to do the same thing.

Why would Lawrence believe that he has a compensation or morale problem if his employees stick around?

Sadly, the traditional corporate/startup/institutional structure is a big part of the problem. Most organizations are set up to look at an employee's pay level only once per year, and to limit any employee's annual increase to a pre-set percentage.

That means that if you are growing fast on the job, it can be difficult or impossible for your employer to keep you on par with market wages outside your company's walls.

The term for this is "salary compression." The longer you stay in one company, the further behind competitive market wages you are likely to fall.

Pay compression is one reason high-performing employees tend to change employers every two to five years. They can't get paid what they are worth staying in one company!

If you still want to help Lawrence see the light, start by building the tightest possible Trusted Adviser relationship with him.

You'll never make your case coming from the place "I'm an aggrieved employee" but you might be successful guiding Lawrence to a higher altitude by getting him to trust and confide in you.

Does that seem like more trouble than it's worth?

Most people would agree with you. Onward and upward is the name of the game!

All the best,


Liz Ryan is CEO/founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter and read Forbes columns.

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