She didn't know where to begin, so she broke the rules.


Do you have a gnawing suspicion that you’re underpaid for your value? 

If you’re like Allison (and many of our clients), you’re probably doing a great job at work. You’re told, "Everyone values your work." Your project has taken off, and you’re now doing the job of two or three people. Though your responsibilities have ballooned in size, your pay doesn’t reflect that.

You’re motivated to claim your value at the table and ask for what’s fair, except... (here the music comes to a screeching halt) you don’t know what’s fair. You don’t know where to even begin looking. 

There are no benchmarks published on the web for a position or an industry that didn’t exist until recently when it was created out of the ether. Talking salaries with your coworkers is taboo, so you have no idea whether Sally in Product Marketing who always seems to be just phoning it in is making more than you. 

So what do you do? 

Allison Behringer, host and producer of podcast The Intern, confronted this problem head-on. She did something that’s scary and uncomfortable for most people. She found that unwritten rules of the workplace were holding her back from researching her value, so she broke them.

In The Intern episode 5 titled "What's Your Worth?" she shares her brave, taboo-breaking negotiation journey. We think this is a must-listen for our readers, especially for those in the startup world where ground rules for handling salary discussions are as rare as neckties and cubicles.

Allison started out as the titular intern at a NYC-based tech startup called betaworks, and -- though now she is a full-time hire successfully producing content while doing the job of three people -- her pay hasn't grown along with her outsized responsibilities and contributions. 

Her entry-level salary ($50K) is up for discussion, so she starts the episode by asking some essential questions for anyone preparing for salary re-negotiation: 

  • How does "everyone values your work" translate into a dollar value and how do you negotiate for that dollar amount? 
  • What is the fair market rate for my job (podcast producer) in my industry (tech startups) in my geographic area (NYC)? 

Realizing there are no clear cut answers, she asks straightforward but uncomfortable questions to her coworkers. She asks them how much they make. 

No one, of course, wants to talk salary "on the record." 

Their "off the record" answers confirm the suspicion that she's underpaid. She's paid much less than someone whose role and experience level are similar to hers. 

Sound familiar? 

We need to have a frank conversation about salary transparency, the lack thereof and how we can change all that. 

We know that salary transparency, when everyone can know what everyone else in the company makes, benefits women and minorities and can help narrow the wage gap (props to Lilly Ledbetter!). So why don't more of us have it? What can we do to get us some of that? 

Let's start with the facts. The National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for companies to prohibit employees from sharing their salaries. As a U.S. worker, you have the right to salary transparency. If this is news to you, check out the Department of Labor's Pay Transparency Fact Sheet. 

But still most companies frown upon employees talking salary with each other. Many of us have internalized this unwritten rule as a social taboo. It feels uncomfortable...wrong somehow to be sharing compensation details. We'd rather talk about sex than money with our coworkers and our friends.

In a previous life as a tech startup employee, I knew what everyone at the company made. My job duties included HR, so it was my job to know. My title was Operations Director and my salary $100K, the midpoint of the pay range at this company.

I benefitted from knowing what everyone else made. Because I knew, I aimed higher when I negotiated my salary. Because I aimed higher, I landed higher. I landed in the mid-point and being a middle manager (and a middle child...perhaps a pattern here?), I was satisfied. 

The point isn't that HR managers have an unfair advantage. The point is you have the right to know what people make so you can discern for yourself whether you're underpaid, and it takes gutsy action to find out. Allison didn't know, so she asked, with microphone in tow.

The unwritten rules were holding her back, so she broke them. This gave her real information and clarity, and clarity is power. 

Okay, so maybe the idea of going around the office asking everyone what they make gives you the heebie jeebies, or a strong case of oh-no-I-can't. I get that it's not for everyone. Salary transparency can start with the people you know and trust (some of them outside the office), and you would be best served by asking people whose jobs are similar and relevant to yours.

You can even take the roundabout way of asking for feedback or advice instead of a number. Let's say if you are a content marketing manager, then you can take a fellow content marketer (either from your company or not) out to coffee and ask, "Hey, I'm thinking about asking for a raise, and since you're someone I respect, I wanted to get your advice. I'm thinking about asking for $75K. Does that sound completely bonkers to you or within reason?" Then see what they say.

One more time, we encourage you to listen to Allison's podcast (here's the link) and share your thoughts on salary transparency with us below in the comments. She did us ambitious negotiators a big favor by recording her salary discussion with her boss. The episode is rich in insights and takeaways, and here are some of our pointers: 

  • Don't give away your ability to negotiate in the future by showing all your cards in advance! 
  • Don't settle at being rewarded for past accomplishments, make a case for your future potential. 
  • Ask what specific results must be accomplished by when in order for you to justify your market value. 

Finally, this was our favorite: 

"The workplace has historically been designed for men and hasn’t been updated to reflect the reality that women make up 47% of the workforce in the US. Looking at the pay gap in this way as a structural problem, solutions like mandated maternity leave would be a total game changer. 

Another way to look at it is on the individual level. What if women can be better asking for raises, better negotiators, more aggressive? My issue with this approach is that it puts the onus on women to conform to a patriarchal system instead of changing the system so that it benefits everyone. 

Today it depends on me. I resolve to aim high. Why not?"