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Underpaid? Here's How to Make the Most Of Your Next Salary Conversation

30 July 2019 , by Alley Marsh

Figuring out how to approach a conversation about a salary increase with employers can be scary, especially when you know you've been underpaid, because it’s hard to know where to find reliable data and how to present your case with confidence. As a Talent Advisor at OfferZen, I have seen a lot of people struggle with this, and would like to share some tips and tricks to help make this something you can handle with confidence.


I have seen a lot of developers set their salary expectations at the maximum amount that they think they should be earning after seeing job adverts with inflated figures. Then, when they are made an offer by a potential employer, they are left confused and disappointed when their expectations aren’t met. This then leads to the process being harder than it should as people tend to push back without properly understanding how to arrive at a figure that works for both parties.

As a Talent Advisor, I am passionate about empowering people to understand how to set themselves up to win.

Often, this requires a lot of honest self-reflection to really understand where you are at in your career and what it will take realistically to get to where you want to be.

When it comes to the closing stages of an interview process where salary is being discussed, I have found that these are the key things to consider when preparing to have this conversation:

  • Why have I been earning a lower salary in the first place?
  • How can I be clear on the facts?
  • How can I approach this discussion with an open mind?

Here are some tips and tricks to help you get to grips with understanding these things so that you can set out on your journey with confidence.

Why have I been earning a lower salary in the first place?

As a start, you need to lay everything out and understand why you haven’t been earning what you could be. This requires you to ask yourself some hard questions, but doing this is important because it will lay the foundation for all salary conversations going forward.

Having a clear idea of where you’re coming from, what has happened, and why, allows you to take ownership of your situation, enter into more honest conversations with potential employers and not be caught off guard.

Here are some useful things to think about when determining why you have been underpaid:

  • Your educational background: In an ideal world, people would first be recognised for their competence, and then for their credentials. In reality, however, when you have a qualification, it will be easier to earn a market-related salary from the get-go than it will be without one.
  • Your level and quality of experience: The amount of time that you have been working in the tech industry as well as the breadth and quality of your experience will count towards how much you are paid. In other words, you may have been working in the industry for ten years, but if you have only been focused on one thing in that time, your market worth may not be as much as someone who has worked on multiple projects in the same time frame.
  • Your skill set: A lot of companies are interested in hiring developers who are passionate about learning and always seeking to upskill themselves. If you have found yourself stuck in a rut, or haven’t learnt anything new for a while, this may count against you. The tech world moves incredibly fast and staying up-to-date is key to advancing in this industry.
  • Where you have been working: Different size companies, or companies that are in different stages of growth, will pay different salaries. If you work at a small dev shop that services local clients, you can expect to be paid less than someone who works at ABSA.

Working through things that you feel you have no control over can be difficult, but it is a really valuable exercise to do, because – no matter what happens – your background and past experiences are going to play a role in what happens next.

How can I be clear on the facts?

Once you have worked through the above, and have a strong grasp on what you have been doing and what you are able to do (be honest with yourself!), you can start figuring out a number.

Make use of reliable sources

At OfferZen, we only use our own data because we have access to tens of thousands of data points that come from companies sending candidates interview requests through our platform every day. I would advise you to take a similar approach when finding data: Only make use of sources that you know and trust.

From what I have seen, there isn’t a lot on the internet that accurately describes how much a developer is worth in South Africa, so, in my opinion, it makes sense to reach out to people directly.

Ask your friends who are in the industry, or reach out to other members of the South African tech community, and ask them how much they are earning. Having this conversation might feel awkward because we have been conditioned to treat it as something sensitive, but remember: You don’t know what you don’t know. Asking is the first step to getting somewhere.

Bear in mind, though, when you have these conversations, that context is key. Someone might have been working for a similar amount of time, and have the same skills that you do, but they might be working at a corporate company that can afford to pay more than a small startup, for example.

It’s a good idea to ask the people that you talk to how they got to the amount that they are earning: Is this the salary that they started working on in their current role? Did they have to work their way up to it? Did they add other skills to their resumé over time that then increased their value?

Understanding how companies think about setting salaries

Often, when companies establish what salary they can offer potential employees, they take these things into consideration:

  • The salaries that they are paying their current employees
  • The salary that you have most recently been earning
  • What you are looking to earn
  • Other market data that they have access to

I have seen that your current salary and what you want to be earning are two factors that will get a lot of attention when companies put together an offer that they can reach out with.

This is where it's important to understand that this process is a journey: If what you have been earning does not fall within the range that you could be earning, based on your research, it’s unlikely that you will be reached out to at the maximum figure. This leap will take a lot of justification on the company’s side, and possibly lead to two things: One, you might lose out on opportunities as companies simply cannot match your expectations, and two, if they do reach out, there will be more pressure on you to perform amazingly during every stage of the interview process.

So, from what I have seen, when you put your number out there, set it at the lower end of the range you have established. For example, if you have been earning R22k but you find out that the market-related range for your years of experience is between R30-40k, I would recommend setting your figure at R30k. By doing this, you will not only get more initial interest and have easier expectations to manage, but you will also be getting a good raise and be earning within the market-related bracket.

If you’re struggling, you can always reach out to a Talent Advisor at OfferZen. We can discuss all of these things with you and help you understand the thinking behind this better.

How can I approach this discussion with an open mind?

When it comes time to talk about your salary with an employer, the best advice I can give is to go in with an open mind. You want your potential employer to engage with you and help you improve your situation, so give them the chance to do that by opening yourself up.

This can be hard, especially when you’re frustrated about your situation and worried about uneven power dynamics. Try not to focus on the past – you’re in a position now where you can start making things better, so remember that as you prepare to have this chat.

Remember that you’re interviewing with another person, not a ‘company’

Approach your conversation with the understanding that you are talking to another human being – they might be representing the company that you are looking to work for, but they are not a ‘company’, or something that you cannot relate to.

Also, take into account that the interview process is as important to them as it is to you. They are pouring a lot of time and energy into bringing the right person into their team, and because you have reached the point where they are making you an offer, they really want you to say yes. This means that they will be willing to listen, empathise, and help in whatever way they can, so don’t be scared to be honest.

Be open to compromise and seek feedback

If, at the end of the process, you’re made an offer that exactly matches what you were hoping for, that’s awesome! However, it's also a good idea to think about how you will respond if the offer they make isn't what you wanted.

My advice would be to open yourself up to finding out why they couldn't match you and what you can do to get there. Ask if there would potentially be an opportunity to review your salary once you have passed your probation period, or if you could maybe check in again after six months on the job. Maybe they have annual reviews and can help you set goals to achieve so that you are in a position to chat about a raise later on. I’ve seen that a lot of companies are open to discussing these things, so don’t be scared to ask these questions.

Remember that no one sees themselves or their abilities objectively – so use someone else’s assessment of you as a chance to learn about what you can improve, rather than a critique. If you can go into the chat with this mindset, having an open conversation will feel much easier.

Pro tips for smashing the conversation

Whoop! The day has arrived and hopefully, after all the prep you've done, you feel pretty confident going into this chat. Here’s some last pointers to make sure it goes as well as possible:

  • Make sure you’ve done your prep: Come to the conversation with all your data written down so that you feel prepared and can show that you've put a lot of thought into it. Write down your current salary, the amount you're hoping for and how much of an increase this is, so that you have something to refer to throughout the chat. Also, make a bullet point list of all the reasons why you think you deserve an increase, and questions you would like to ask the company about growth opportunities etc.
  • Go in with a clear mind: It’s totally understandable to have some emotions brewing when going into this conversation with a potential employer, so it’s important to be aware of them and manage them as best you can. Emotions can cloud your judgement and your ability to compromise, which are two key things you will need for this conversation.
  • Listen to what the other person has to say: Remember, you are talking to another person who wants to help you succeed. This should be an equal conversation, so engage with them as much as you would like them to engage with you. If by some chance, the company doesn't match what your expected amount is, try to be genuinely curious about how you did in the interview process and what they think you can upskill in. Be open to understanding what they have to say.
  • Stick to your plan but don’t be stubborn: Don’t fall into the trap of changing your mind at the last minute and asking for something that exceeds what you have been building up to. This will only lead to difficulties. On the other hand, try to be open to exploring options – if a company cannot match what you are asking for, ask about how they think about career development, salary progression and other benefits before making your decision.
  • Follow up: Once you’ve had the discussion, show your future employer that you’re excited about the opportunity by keeping the communication lines open.

Alley has her Master’s degree in Industrial Psychology and a BSocial Science in Psychology. As a Talent Advisor at OfferZen, Alley is massively focused on empowering candidates through their job search. She is a self-proclaimed coffee addict with a love for helping people contribute to the world in a positive way. When Alley isn’t helping makers level up in their job search skills, she’ll most likely be singing her lungs out, doing a yoga flow, or watering her ever-growing succulent collection (but not all at the same time, obviously).


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