Ask the Expert: How can I get paid what I'm worth?

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A. It sounds like you know better than to fabricate your earnings. Nowadays, firms up and down the Street confirm previous compensation directly with the old employer. Lying is a good way to lose an offer-or, worse, a job you've just started.

How you handle inquiries about your compensation depends on whether you're talking to a headhunter or a prospective employer. Their interests are far from aligned. Even though an outside recruiter technically works for the hiring company, the recruiter's compensation is determined on a sliding scale according to your first-year pay.

Rod Williams, an outplacement consultant at Lee Hecht Harrison, says, 'Recruiters will most assuredly work with you to position your compensation in the best possible light. There's no reason to fear revealing this information provided you can make a clear case for why the current compensation for your skill level doesn't match what the market has to offer.' Is your current employer's philosophy to consistently pay below market? Have profits at the company led to salary freezes or minimal increases? By all means, say so.

Pat Wieser, an executive recruiter at Russell Reynolds Associates, says, 'If you're not sure that your recruiter knows that your boutique tends to underpay, then say something like, 'My understanding from talking to some peers in the industry is that I'm probably underpaid for what I do, but I don't regret it all, because I got such great experience.'

Fielding the compensation question from a potential employer is trickier-and timing is everything. When the question comes early in the process, try to defer it until after you have a chance to lay out your value to the organization. Listen to the employer's needs and talk about how you will either save or create money relative to their competitors. Understanding how to contribute to the bottom line-and how to articulate this-is the number one quality desired by most firms.

This last strategy requires an above-average amount of homework so that you understand the organization both as a financial asset and as a corporate community. Talk to people in the industry and be sure to read any publicly available documentation such as the company's annual report or SEC filings.

If you make a persuasive enough argument about how you personally will benefit the bottom line, you will be able to look any prospective employer in the eye, disclose your salary history with a straight face, and expect that they will be happy to work with you as someone who thinks like an owner. Present yourself this way, and enjoy the payoff.

A reader advises...

Don't forget about non-cash comp (benefits, perks, etc)-these may bring you closer to market.

Next week's question: How would you handle an unfriendly colleague? Is it best to sweep the problem under the rug (or workload) or try to turn it around?

What would you advise? Send your answer to expertadmin@efinancialcareers.com.

Look for the Experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week.

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