This post also appears in my Work in Progress blog for Forbes.com:
If you’re busily doing your job, a long time might have passed since you’ve checked to see whether you’re fairly paid. Salary sites, such as www.Salary.com, www.Payscale.com, and www.Glassdoor.com are helpful to getting a general sense for salaries. But there are so many nuances with geography, job title, functional area, background, and more that get lost in aggregate data. You really need data specific to your job at your level in your town. The best way is to talk to people, but how can you get people to freely talk about salary?
It is next to impossible to get people to disclose their own salary, so don’t bother asking someone who is doing your job. Shoot for someone several levels above who had done the job, so they will know, but who will be beyond it, so they won’t feel threatened. Here is where the research from salary sites is helpful – use it as a starting point for the conversation so it’s clear you’ve done some research and so the person you’re asking has some talking points to start. Ask them to comment on the estimates you have – are they high/ low; are they consistent with the specific companies you are targeting (maybe you are targeting start-ups and the salaries you have apply to established brand names or vice versa).
Remember to get more than one perspective. The downside of asking someone who has left the job is that their info is less current. You can mitigate that by asking several people since it’s unlikely that everyone taken together will be far off. Recruiters will be very helpful here. Test what you now know about salary with recruiters. Post a question to recruiters on LinkedIn. Recruiters are natural networkers. They also want to demonstrate their expertise in their market.
Another possibility is to ask people in the job but about another company, so you are still asking about a situation one step removed from them. So you ask someone in the job you want at Pfizer about the pay range at Bristol Myers Squibb or someone at Kraft what they know about salaries at General Mills.
Finally, even when you have a sense of what your salary should be, you have to take action if you are underpaid or paid on the lower end of the range and could be making more. One site to consider is www.GetRaised.com, which provides salary data, as well as actual scripts that you can use to ask for a raise. There is a fee of $20 but it’s refundable if you don’t get your raise. If you have a complicated negotiation or need extra help to customize your strategy, you might work with a career coach. One of my clients retained me specifically to coach her about salary issues – she included a request for coaching so she effectively got her initial investment reimbursed and then some.