Our Take: The 'Just World' Axiom

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A contact in transition told me that a recruiter, upon learning his last salary, replied, "Wow, you were pretty well paid." Problem is, my friend insists he was substantially underpaid compared with his peers.

"I meet people on a regular basis who are exactly at the same mental and educational level who make twice as much. The difference is that they have been given opportunities that I haven't," he explained.

His wish to talk up his market value is understandable. And the belief that success may hinge on luck and inherited connections - never far from the surface in our business - is more palpable than ever since the financial sector's cataclysm spared some institutions while grinding others (and their employees) into dust.

But the emotions that swirl up when contemplating one's own compensation usually are best held close to the chest. That goes double for any gap you perceive between your own worth and what you see others making.

Profess Respect For Peers Who Leapfrogged You

In my view, a professional's value relative to peers at any moment is determined by three and only three things:

- What he has done in the (very recent) past.

- What he can prove he is capable of doing tomorrow, or whatever date he is available to start in a new job.

- The strings he can pull to win opportunities for himself or deals for an employer.

Note that "mental and educational level" isn't part of this equation. And it shouldn't be. Nor should the idea that anyone was "given" opportunities you weren't.

Instead, get yourself into the mindset of thinking that anyone who obtained an opportunity that propelled their market value above yours:

- Put themselves in position to gain that opportunity,

- Seized it, and then,

- Ran with it to the point of converting it into a bankable item on their resume.

Once you get yourself thinking that way, it will be easier to say it to a recruiter or hiring manager and sound utterly convincing. You want to be believed when you tell a decision-maker you admire those people who profited from career opportunities you haven't had - yet - because your greatest desire is to follow in their footsteps and climb the same ladders they did.

Never tell an interviewer (or a supervisor or colleague, for that matter) you resent or envy peers who earn more than you. That is simply whining, which is career poison.

How to Take The High Road

All of us know full well that life is unfair. Yet more than any other human activity, the finance business is built around the principle that winners earned their place, and losers earned theirs. Think of it as the "Just World" axiom. To come across to anyone as a go-getter, you must act as though you wholeheartedly subscribe. You needn't believe the axiom - indeed, your audience doesn't necessarily believe it, in his or her heart of hearts. Just don't ever get caught saying or acting like you think life's been unfair to you.

So what's the best response to a recruiter who says you are (or were) "well paid"? No matter what you really feel about your compensation, seize the opportunity she's handing you to brag about what a great job you're doing and how critical you are to your employer. Then praise your supervisor or other decision-maker's wisdom in recognizing and rewarding your contributions.

In other words: Lay it on thick. And don't worry that what you say will be used as a bencmark for compensation in your next role.

If a few weeks later the same recruiter is stunned when you reject her offer for 20 percent more than the alleged "well paid" salary you're making now, your answer can go something like this: "Through my due diligence on the prospective position and employer, I've learned that the median guaranteed compensation for a similar basket of responsibilities, when filled by a person with experience and credentials in line with mine, is $X (the upper bound of your target compensation range)."

Granted, that might not get you the figure you're looking for. But if you got an offer at all, you're already ahead of the game. If instead you had chosen the low road in pursuit of a negotiating edge, you'd have been eliminated long ago.

Originally published Aug. 14, 2009.

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