Career Growth

What to Do When You Love Your Job But the Pay is Horrible

Studies on job retention focus on a few key areas that keep employees motivated and incentivized to stay with an employer for long periods of time. A fair salary is one of them. So what do you do when you love everything about your job except the pay?


Underpaid or Paid Less Than You Want?
There’s an important distinction to make in saying that the “pay is horrible.” LOTS of people thing they’re paid horribly. The first step you should take is to determine whether you are paid below market for someone in your position, in your location, in a company like yours (industry, revenue, size, etc.) or whether you’re just in a low-paying position. This will take some research. Luckily, there’s an increasing amount of salary information available online. Find as many recent statistics as you can with the narrow parameters described above. Look at the overarching trend, and determine whether your current salary compares.

If You’re Underpaid…
After a thorough analysis of fair-market salaries for your position in your location, industry, specific practice, and company size, etc., you determine that you are underpaid. Here’s what you should do:
Make A Game Plan
Every company is different, so I would first recommend determining the best way to breach the subject within your company (if at all). Many of my clients determine that it is best to discuss their salary with their direct manager, who thereafter can discuss it with his manager and HR. Others don’t trust their manager and feel much more confident about taking the issue directly to their manager’s manager or to HR directly.

Next, determine how best to bring up the subject of higher pay. Many companies are known internally for fighting employees on requests for pay increases, even when supported by market research. Other companies make it known publicly that they underpay and, therefore, are much less likely to provide higher pay just because the market dictates it is fair. Know your company inside and out before making a stand, and determine whether it is best to ask for a raise based on your increased qualifications and responsibilities/role or to ask for fair-pay based on the research you’ve done.

Remind yourself that you will rarely get higher pay unless you ask for it or unless you apply for another job.

Just Ask
This is the hard part. Remind yourself that you will rarely get higher pay unless you ask for it or unless you apply for another job. Arm yourself with the research you’ve done on what others are paid in your position. Have prepared a list of thoroughly vetted and well-thought-out reasons why you deserve higher pay despite the research. Come ready with examples of instances in which you’ve shown that you’ve earned a salary above your pay grade. Be equipped with your response when rebutted with the following questions and statements:

  • Our company offers excellent work-life balance extra paid time off for all employees that would equate to the amount you are asking for.
  • Our company offers benefits that well-exceed the additional salary amount you are requesting.
  • Our company doesn’t offer that pay to your position, and we don’t have any positions available for the position above yours.
  • Our department has a capped budget, which we use, among other things, to pay your salary, and we don’t have it in the budget this year to add to your salary.
  • Pay raises are solely determined by your performance reviews, and the next review is in 8 months. At that point, we will analyze your salary request.
  • Also, be prepared to answer if they flat-out say “no.” Are you prepared to walk away?
    Apply – It Can’t Hurt
    If you really are not afraid to walk away if your company refuses higher pay, then I would highly recommend having another job waiting. It cannot hurt to start applying for other positions that offer the pay you want. Start networking with as much gusto as you would if you were in need of a new job. Even if you love your current job, there will always be equally satisfying and/or better opportunities. Two scenarios can come out of this: 1) you can find a job you want with higher pay (or the same pay with more opportunity for growth); and/or 2) you can use other job offers to leverage higher pay within your current company.
    If You’re Paid Less Than You Want…
    After a thorough analysis of fair-market salaries for your position in your location, industry, specific practice, and company size, etc., you determine that you are not underpaid. Here’s what you should do:
    Determine Your Priorities
    Take your time to consider thoughtfully what is most important to you now and in the long-term. You may love your job, but is impending student loan debt debilitating? Will you be forced to delay having children, something you’ve always wanted, because you can’t currently afford it? Will you never be happy doing anything other than what you’re currently doing?
    Make a Tough Decision
    You will need to make some decisions here, and they won’t be easy. Loving your job is priceless, and you will be among the few if you find yourself giddy about going to work each day. But if, like many, your salary contributes to your overall job satisfaction and standard of living, then you will most likely have a tough time determining your next steps. Whether you want to apply for a new job or ask for a raise, Unfold Careers can help you get your resumé in shape, coach you on salary negotiation, or work with you to find a new job.

    With over 8 years of experience helping others improve their careers, I founded Unfold Careers to provide affordable career advice to students and professionals struggling to meet their career goals. Want help with salary negotiation or researching whether you are underpaid? Email us at