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What's Your Salary?

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There’s an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make.  There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let’s consider several use cases.

Use Case 1. Joe and Larry are colleagues working for the same company, they have great relations and perform similar duties. After having a couple of beers at the corporate party, Larry says, “Joe, you did a really good job at this tough project with unreal deadlines. I hope they’ve compensated you for all these long hours.”  
Joe is flattered, and says “Yes, I got an extra $10K as a  bonus”.

Larry answers, “This is really cool”…and gets upset and pissed off. Two months ago he’s been working really hard on a similar project, but did not get anything other than “Thank you”. Larry thinks that it’s unfair. The climate in their team slowly gets worse and Joe and Larry do not go for a beer any longer.

Use case 2. Many years ago Sandy and Max have graduated from the same college. Now they work for different firms but their families are friends and often spend time together. During one of such  gatherings, Max asks, “Sandy, we are both Java programmers and know each other for years. I’m thinking of making a move with my career. What’s the realistic salary I should ask for?” And Max makes a big mistake by saying, “Well, You know my skills, and I’m making $80K working on a time tracking  application for our  Human Resources department.” Sandy spent years doing his Ph.D. research and works now on complex algorithms in a lab funded by government. He makes $60K a year, which is good enough to pay their bills. After the party, Sandy’s wife Mary found out about Max’s eighty grand. From that day she could not sleep at night. How come? Max has hardly graduated, while my Sandy was always a genius…Sandy and Mary got divorced in a year.

Use case 3. A firm puts an ad with a job description that fits your profile advertising a salary range $70-$80K a year. Your current salary is $68K, you feel that you are underpaid (even though there is no such thing as “underpaid” people), and decided to apply for a job.  You meet with an HR person of this company, and they ask about you current salary. You should answer: ”I’m looking for a more challenging job, and the position you’re trying to fill is exactly what I want,  I’m qualified for this job,  and will be happy to work for you for $80K a year”. Do not reveal your current salary. If you need to fill out a job  application form, leave this field blank. In half of the cases, you’ll be able get away with this. If not, oh well, look somewhere else. Most likely they won’t pay you eighty after figuring out that you’re making sixty eight. This employer knows the qualifications required for this job, they are well aware of prevailing salaried paid for similar jobs by other firms, so their only concern should be if you can do this job and not how much money you made before.

Use case 4. You are looking for a job and your recruiter  sends you to a client company for a job interview. The agent knows what are your salary requirements. The potential employer asks you about your salary… Do whatever you can to not answer this question. I do not know who’s the author of this rule, but it’s a golden rule of salary negotiations: "The first person to mention a number loses". Remember, that salary is just a part of the compensation package. Here’s your mantra: “I’m open for any fair offer. If you decide to hire me, I’d rather consider the entire compensation package than a base salary”. Usually, your agent will be able to negotiate a better deal for you. Let them do their job. They have established relations with this client and know how to approach them in this particular matter.

Use case 5. You are a successful software developer, you salary grows faster that average in the nation. You’ve managed to increase your salary from $60K to  $120K within the last five years. This is quite an achievement. You feel important and want to teach other people how to manage their careers. Your body was craving for a couple of Wows, and you’ve shared you success story with your neighbor. He said, “Wow”…smiling inside as he was consistently making $150K during the same period of time. Luckily, your neighbor would never reveal this number. Your self esteem is saved.

Use case 6. Alex and Lisa were going out for  two years, and finally Alex decided to propose. By some idiotic rules, for such occasions young men are buying expensive diamond rings. Alex has purchased a $15K diamond ring, and proposed to her. She was so happy and said Yes. In a couple of months, she asked Alex what was his salary. She caught him off guard and he said: $60K a year. Lisa was a student studying accounting. She quickly put two and two together and decided that she can’t live with a man who can spend $15K in a ring having such a modest salary. I do not remember if she has returned the ring though.
 
Use case 7. You are leading a small team of software developers. Marsha is in her 40th, and she's with the company for 10 years. Ashish, 27 is one of these sharp god-like programmers who programmed 80% of the project. When Ashish found out that Marsha's salary is $80K and his is only$60K, he decided that it's not fair and immediately started looking for a new job. He did not know that only because Marsha's connections within the firm your group were given this project in the first place, and Ashis  had the green light when the business analysts input was required. Yes, Marsha was not as good of a coder as Ashish. So? Every person tends to overestimate his/her contribution to the success of the project. And you as a project manager better make sure that they do not start comparing their compensation with other team members.

Use case 8. Somehow Gordon figured out that Frank is making more money than him. During the annual review, when he found out that his salary will increase "only" by 4%, he said to his manager, "How come, I am not worse than Frank but he makes a lot more than me".

Yakov, the manager, said that he'd take a look at this situation. In about a month, Yakov invited Gordon in the office and said, "Our department is not doing that great, we've had a series of budget cuts, and even though you are a greate asset to our group, I'm going to have to let you go. Sorry, man!" Of course, this was not the real reason: Yakov did not need a bad egg in his  team.

Never use someone's salary as a reason for your raise. You think you are underpaid? Update your resume and hit the job market. Can't do better than now? Sit down and shut up. It's a bit rude, I know. Welcome to the real world.

People who live in the USA for a while avoid  the question about salary  by all means. But if you run into a newcomer who may ask you directly “What’s your salary?” Just say, ”Even my wife does not know this  number”, and give them an American  smile.

I’d love to hear from your about other  use cases proving me right or wrong.

By the way, do you want to know how much I make? Sorry, it’s a classified information and you do not have the required clearance. But let me just tell you – it’s never enough.

posted Monday, 31 July 2006
tags:    

More Stories By Yakov Fain

Yakov Fain is a Java Champion and a co-founder of the IT consultancy Farata Systems and the product company SuranceBay. He wrote a thousand blogs (http://yakovfain.com) and several books about software development. Yakov authored and co-authored such books as "Angular 2 Development with TypeScript", "Java 24-Hour Trainer", and "Enterprise Web Development". His Twitter tag is @yfain

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Most Recent Comments
tdorsal 12/08/08 04:46:59 PM EST

I'm not sure if I disagree and this is why. I've learned about my cohorts' salaries in the office and, yes, it upset me a great deal. I didn't know that $40K was a very bad start for a java developer when I got my first job after college. Then I found out my peers were making $50K to $60K. But hey, that's why I asked for a raise at my 1 year anniversary and got $50K. That's why I asked again on my 2nd annual review and got $60K. On my 3rd year, I asked for $70K, was denied, and left to work elsewhere for $75K. By this time, I was catching on that no one earns what they deserve. The number is a game you play with employers and your salary is your score. I've continued playing the game and have, to date, managed a $ 10K raise year after year. I've been writing Java code now for 6 years and making $100K. Honestly, I do wonder when I'm gonna break my stride but the point is, if I never got so mad for working for so much less than others, I'd probably still be at that 1st job making $ 40K-something (4% raise every year). I would have a certificate, or pen, or something thanking me for my loyalty at my 5 year milestone, thinking to myself that I'm doing well. Ha! Ha, to you idiots with those certificates!

JDJ News Desk 08/01/06 11:44:02 AM EDT

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There's an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make. There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let's consider several use cases.

SYS-CON Belgium News Desk 08/01/06 09:07:02 AM EDT

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There's an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make. There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let's consider several use cases.

JDJ News Desk 08/01/06 08:44:19 AM EDT

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There's an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make. There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let's consider several use cases.

JDJ News Desk 08/01/06 08:43:38 AM EDT

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There's an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make. There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let's consider several use cases.

JDJ News Desk 08/01/06 08:19:25 AM EDT

In the USA, your salary is the most confidential information. Should you even answer the question about your salary? Never. People who are entitled to know this number already know. Only your boss, HR and, sometimes your spouse know this magic number. There's an unwritten law: never ask your colleagues or even friends how much they make. There is another law: do not say how much you make just to impress people. There are a couple of simple reasons why this is never a good thing to do. Let's consider several use cases.

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