That Awkward Moment When Your Intern Earns More

A personal story about the value of salary transparency.

I knew my boss wanted me.

And I wanted her — professionally speaking, of course.

I also wanted to stay in that job. This mission was inspiring, my boss encouraged all my weird projects, and they gave me free food every day.

The only issue was salary.

The company was known for paying on the low-end of the salary spectrum, assuming the mission and perks would be enough. Making the salary issue more complex was that my role could have had a dozen titles. Glassdoor gave me a salary range from $20k to $170k.

Not helpful.

My boss was working through her own issues. She was expected to make a significant profit on training — traditionally one of a company’s biggest cost centers. To solve these issues, I decided to kill a bunch of birds with one stone.

I decided to finally network.

Now I hate networking. I find casual chatting painful, and am awkward as all hell. However…asking people invasive questions is where I shine. My natural awkwardness turns into a superpower by being willing to ask hard questions that most are too polite to approach.

I messaged every training professional I could find in my area to ask about their department structure. These same people who had rejected my advances when looking for a job now had time to spare for my friendly discussion as a fellow training peer.

I ended up talking to nearly 70 training professionals from all levels. I asked whether their department was a cost or profit center, segued into asking about their team makeup, the specific roles within, and then casually inquired about the typical salary ranges by level. And most seemed very comfortable with sharing this info. Didn’t even bat an eye.

Within a month, I had a breakdown of precisely what I should be asking for my role, education, and experience. I also learned that out of the 40ish companies interviewed, only three described their training departments as a profit center (and only one reporting being successful at it).

So when “the talk” finally happened, I was ready. I pulled out my research and gave a very well-researched number, stupidly on the low end for my education and experience. But as I said earlier, the company gave me free food every day.

However, with my lowball number, my boss’s face went white.

She took my research and told me she would talk to HR. She didn’t talk to HR. She sat at her desk for a long time as I pretended not to stare through the glass wall. Then she called me back in.

“Sam, I want to keep you and pay what you asked, but I don’t even make that much,” she said.

I was prepared for that. I had a feeling she — who had started at the company as an assistant a decade over and worked up to a director, was underpaid. I didn’t know how badly.

Gingerly, I gave her part two of my research — a compensation analysis for her role. She looked at the number and told me it was double her current salary.

With that, I mentally crossed the organization off my prospect list and started to move on. I didn’t want to stay at an organization that rewarded loyalty that badly.

A few months later, that boss was the first to hear about my job offer. The salary I was offered was precisely the salary I told her to ask for.
Later, she told me that she was given a $50k raise.

So, I implore all women (and men who may be underpaid): keep your eye on the market and not devalue yourself and your skills. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and ask about their salaries. You may learn something valuable.

You may be grateful to have your job. You may feel unqualified. You may feel less competent than another potential candidate. However, if your organization keeps you in your position, they need to pay you what you are worth.

As difficult and awkward as it is to demand a raise, it’s even more uncomfortable when your intern asks for more money than you earn.

A socially awkward jumble of contradictions, questions, and tangents.

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