A reader writes:
I'm a 24 year old black female working for in D.C. This is my first job out of college and I've enthusiastically worked there for a year and two months. I will admit that I agreed to work for an offensively low hourly-rate when I started (in terms of cost of living in D.C. and pay scale of fellow colleagues). I figured that I would prove how valuable I am to the company and they would subsequently pay "to keep me." I am interested in the field and saw it as the ideal entry point to a very competitive and elusive industry. I love challenges and considered it my goal to be the best first-hire they ever had!
In the past year, I've been a model employee and have acquired numerous skills that have made me a valuable resource to the company. I support our second biggest client and the client has noted that our services have been nearly flawless since I joined the team. Also, I am one of a handful of people (all of which have been working in the industry for 5-10 years) that know how to use an application that has become the new industry standard. Additionally, I learned the aforementioned application on my own time and dime. I'm always assigned the harder/more frustrating projects that no one wants to work on. I spend a ridiculous amount of over-time at work, have had to cancel numerous plans in my personal life for the sake of a deadline, and frequently work remotely from home (btw, unpaid hours). I've never complained about ANYTHING because I realize that it's all part of the job and meeting the deadline is the only thing that matters.
After weeks of begging for my annual performance review (two months overdue), my boss agreed to fit me into his schedule this past Friday (2 hours after I was scheduled to clock-out, but I was just glad to get a reply that wasn't "maybe some time next week"). I was really excited because my colleagues have said wonderful things about me and raised my hopes by saying I would definitely be offered a salary position due to my unprecedented improvement in such a short time. Also, a fellow employee with less experience than me, who started only a week before me, bragged that it is "so freeing" to no longer have to clock-in and out because he was salary now. He even asked me if payroll had messed up my time-sheet during the transition from hourly to salary, thinking that I had already had my review. Since he started a week before me, he assumed that I got my review a week after his. He got his review at the scheduled time, while I had to constantly remind my boss that I was due for mine and he kept postponing it. For two months!!
This leads me to my problem. As you may have guessed, the review did not go as planned. My boss said amazing and very encouraging things about me. He said he wished he had other employees like me and even suggested that I teach specific skills and applications to the employee that I mentioned earlier. He said he knew no one else who he would want new hires to "learn good habits from."
That brings us to wage negotiation time. I thought salary position is in the bag! However, the raise that he offered me was a measly $1.80 hourly increase and a title change from specialist to analyst! I was dumbfounded! All I could utter was, "analyst position doesn't come with a salary?" He said that normally it does, but that because I'd only been working for a year , HR would not allow him to offer me a salary position. He said he campaigned for salary pay on my behalf, but HR has very strict rules in regards to that matter. This time next year I would be eligible for salary, but I still needed more time "under my belt." This is a complete lie because the other employee is now salaried and he only preceded me by a week! I was speechless and felt so disrespected and unappreciated that all my effort was spent on holding back the tears and gaining my composure. While I was trying to calm down the rising rage and trying to formulate a logical unemotional argument, he tells me that he has another meeting in a couple of minutes and if I was "okay" with what he was offering. He starts to look at his blackberry and shuffle papers around. The panic sets in and all my acquired knowledge on salary negotiations and any sense of self-confidence is destroyed. I stupidly stammered "that's cool...that's cool..that's cool" repeatedly and before I know it, I signed the review form, shook his hand, and was on the other side of his door. I stood there for a couple of minutes blinking back tears, but paralyzed otherwise.
Am I a fool for expecting them to value my contributions to the company? He knows how much of myself I give to my work and he still screwed me over. Why?! Is it because of my race? I am one of four black people in a 15-people department. Is it because of my gender? I am the only woman working in the department. Is it because I started at such a low pay scale, he thinks that I will always accept the minimum? Did I set a bad precedent from day one? As a manager, isn't his best interest in keeping me, a model employee, happy? Or, is his real goal to save the company money, by any means necessary...even at my expense. I'm heartbroken, and deep down I know it's irrational to be this emotional about it, but I really have put so much of myself into my work and therefore this slight is that much more insulting. Can I pursue legal action? Should I?
I read all these articles about how women in the workplace aren't assertive enough and that this is their biggest problem when it comes to the negotiation table, and feel empowered that this knowledge will help me combat that pitfall. But, here I am, just another statistic. I don't know what to do at this point. I've thought about moving on to another company, but my company has a very strict non-compete policy and my measly one year experience is not going to have our competitors willing to fight for me. Also, all the available jobs require at least 2-3 years of industry experience. Am I being ridiculous, too emotional, or am I justified?
I'm so sorry that this is so long. I just really needed to get this off my chest and to talk to someone about it. THANK YOU SO MUCH for your time and allowing me to vent. I would really appreciate any insight you may have.
First, I'm so sorry to hear about your situation! I can imagine how upsetting this is.
My guess -- and I could be wrong -- is that this company tries to lowball people whenever they can, and they're just hoping they can lowball you and you'll accept it. You're going to have to push back and negotiate.
My advice is this: Ask to meet with your manager again this week. Tell him that you've had time to think about your conversation and you're confused about his inability to switch you to a salaried position. Ask explicitly whether there is a company-wide policy that requires working a certain amount of time at your level before becoming eligible for a salary, or whether HR is just pushing back in your particular case. If he tells you it's the former, well, there may not be a lot you can do. But I think there's a good chance it will come out that it's the latter -- in which case, tell him that you believe your performance warrants a better salary offer and that you'd like some time (a few days or a week) to prepare a memo laying out your reasons. (I'm suggesting a memo rather than an on-the-spot conversation because I think you're upset enough about this that you'll be better able to present a thorough case in writing.)
He may look at you wearily, tell you not to worry about doing that, and that he'll see what he can do (and then hopefully come back to you shortly with a better offer). Or he may just look uncomfortable and say okay. If so, your next step is to write a memo (as brief as possible, because you want them to actually read the whole thing) laying out your case, citing comments from your evaluation, etc.
I think you can get yourself more money if you firmly explain why you've earned it. But if it turns out this is a company that's shortsighted about pay, don't lose sight of the fact that you're not stuck there. With more experience under your belt now, you can go out and find a job that will properly compensate you. Don't be deterred by job ads that say two to three years of experience is required. Those are more like wish lists, and you can absolutely make a case for yourself as a strong candidate despite having less experience. (And cite some of those great comments from your review in your cover letter. Someone smart will snatch you up.)
Now, on the issue of legal action -- If you think you can make a clear case that his reasons are discriminatory, it's always an option, but you're talking about spending a lot of money and even more energy and emotion on something that tends to be hard to prove. It also won't solve your problem in the short run, since these cases can take years. So unless it's egregiously obvious, I'd say to try other avenues before even thinking about whether that's something you want to take on.)
Ultimately, my advice is to address this head on, tell your boss firmly what you want (you might even suggest a specific salary), and see what happens. Make it clear you know your own worth. You could even say that you accepted a lower-than-market salary early on because you hadn't proven yourself yet, but now you have -- as evidenced by his own comments about your performance.
But if it turns out the company just isn't willing to budge, you will find somewhere that will value you in the way they should. Please write back and update us, and good luck!