Friday, July 1, 2022

Fly on the Wall Report: I Gotsta Get Paid

I've become a perpetual job hunter.  If you've been hanging out with me for a while, you know that I left my once-beloved long time job last year and the job that I have now is "OK but I think there's something better out there".  Since I restarted my job search back in February I've shared all of my hunting stories here on the blog.

I have an update on the company that I called Big Spender, the one who tried to tell me that I should be considering PTO and health insurance to be part of my salary.  Before I get to that, I thought that I would go back to the beginning and explain how I came up with the salary number that I'm looking for and tell the never-before-told stories of how various companies have reacted to it.  

If you're new here, I'm an accountant who specializes in payroll.  For the past ten years at every job I've had a full view of the salaries of everyone that I work with.  Folks, I've seen some things.  Sorry not sorry but this is going to be a long post.

Disclaimer: this is a report of things I've seen and what I think...take it all with a grain of salt.  I'm an accountant and not HR so I don't know how this stuff is supposed to work.  I only know what I see.

My job search started in February 2021.  I had been at the same job for many years and it had been win-win-win: the company was a unicorn that was doing good in the world and making big money from it, I loved what I did and the people that I worked with, and thanks for asking, I made great money!  I had a nice base salary with a generous raise each year, a very nice annual bonus, and considerable perks including fully paid health insurance premiums for my family.  

This came to an end when the company was acquired by Big Corporate.  My team was told that our jobs would be eliminated but that we would be assigned other roles in the company and if for some reason there weren't any jobs we'd get severance.  I didn't like the sound of "don't worry we'll find you a job" (um doing what???) so I got my resume updated and started spending a lot of time on LinkedIn.  I knew that I had a job for another five months and that severance would be at least six months, so there was no urgency.  In fact, the longer that I stayed the better since if I left before May I would be leaving my annual bonus and some stock behind.  I could take my time and get something good.

There were things that I wanted from my next job, such as to work for another unicorn and to have a great work life, and then of course there was the compensation question.  My pay had gone up a lot during my time with the company.  Could I get the same pay elsewhere?  Could I make more?  Would I have to take less?

I added my base, my bonus, and an estimate of what I thought I would pay for health insurance and came up with the Dream Number.  So really it's just what I was making at the time but more money on each paycheck and most likely a bonus and perks on top of that.  I started browsing around on LinkedIn and looked at salaries in job postings.  I saw that it was possible to make 50% less, I saw numbers that were in the ballpark, and every once in a while I saw some big money numbers.  Hmmm...I applied to every possible job out there, sat back and watched the rejections flood in, and then started to catch a few fish in my net.

Company #1: BootyMatic

The first company that I interviewed with was a boot manufacturer located in the rural part of my home state.  The entire interview from start to finish was one hour: a 30 minute chat with the recruiter and then a 30 minute chat with the manager.  At no point did they ask me about compensation.  I knew that I didn't want the job so I hoped that they wouldn't call me for a second interview.

And they didn't...they called me a week later with a job offer.  For $25k less than my base salary and hella lot less than Dream Number.

The takeaway isn't that Bootymatic is some evil empire, it's that manufacturing pays less than the tech.  Location matters as well - hicks in the sticks make less than city slickers.  Their offer was great for someone who lives in the area, and not great for someone who is focusing on tech companies in the entire US.

Company #2: MindReader

The second company that I interviewed with asked me about compensation in our first conversation.  I turned into a deer in the headlights.  Oh no, I couldn't ask them for Dream Number!  I asked for Dream Number minus $10,000 "what I'm making now" and mentioned that my current employer paid 100% of health insurance premiums.

As I moved through the interview process, I learned that the job duties were perfect.  But I didn't love the people and in particular there was something about the supervisor that didn't sit right. Also Big Corporate was an investor in the company and I wondered if they would buy it and I would find myself in exactly the same position that I was now.

The offer came in: they said they wanted to make up for the difference in the health insurance so they thought that $10,000 should do it - whoa they were mind readers!  In addition there was a 5% bonus and company stock.  My second interview out of the gate and I had achieved the mission.

But...I had started interviewing with another company that I liked very much, I didn't like the supervisor, there was a possibility of being acquired by Big Corporate, and there would be other fish in this sea.  I turned the offer down.  To date this is the best offer that I have gotten, and I have mixed feelings about passing on this.  I think it was the right decision?

Company #3: HeartEyes

I've talked a lot of crap about employers in this space, so you might think that I hate 'em all.  But that's not the case.  Every once in a while a good one comes along and after my first conversation with HeartEyes my reaction was 😻😻😻

Based on my experience with MindReader, I was ready to say Dream Number loud and proud in my first screening call.

The response, "That's no problem".

Alas, I did not get the job.  It was the first job that I had interviewed for in a long time where I've made it all the way through the interview process and gotten turned down.  Since then I've gotten used to that as well as saying Dream Number out loud.

Company #4: Transparency

Transparency is a company that you've heard of that, duh, prides themselves on their transparency.  I was beyond amazed that they were looking for someone with my skills and couldn't believe it when they called me for a initial screening.  

Being a transparent company, they said the compensation instead of asking me.  The company is based in Silicone Valley and I live in Podunk Town, Hickstate.

Recruiter: "Based on your location the salary is [$30,000 less than Dream Number]."

Me: "Oh that's too bad.  I really enjoyed talking to you and I love Transparency, but that's just too far below what I'm looking for".

Recruiter: "Well, what are you looking for?"

Me: "Dream Number".

Recruiter: "I'd like to give your information to the hiring manager.  If they're interested they'll find room in the budget".

Transparency's interview process was incredibly long, nearly two months from first conversation to the last.  The job was clearly wrong, but I liked the people and was pumped about the company and there was a nice bonus on top of Dream Number so it would have been hard to turn it down.  They made it easy for me by making the decision not to hire me.

By this time my current job had deteriorated and was train wreck city.  I was working all hours of the day, I stopped speaking to my boss, and worst of all, my end date with the company was extended from July to December.  Five more months of that misery and no guarantee that they would lay me off and give me that sweet, sweet severance.  I had to get out of there and fast!

Company #5: InsideConnection

Inside was a tech company that people at my old job had gone to work for, so when the job posting came up I didn't apply.  I phoned a friend and the recruiter called me.

Recruiter: "What compensation are you looking for?"

Me: "Dream Number"

Recruiter: "We pay $12k less but we have stock options!"

Me (desperate to work anywhere but where I did and being genuinely interested in the company...I mean just because I want Dream Number doesn't mean that I wouldn't take less for the right job): "It sounds like we're in the same range".

I didn't get this job either.

By this time I'd left my awful job to work at a startup which turned out to be a mistake but it did give me a less stressful paycheck while I continued my job search.  I wondered if I was losing out on some of these jobs because there was a cheaper candidate, so I started experimenting.  About half of the time I asked for Dream Number and about half of the time I asked for my current base and mentioned that I had a bonus on top of that.

Company #6: Overseas

Hey that's where I work now!  It's a company that's based in another country but has enough people in the US that they needed someone who knows US payroll and works US hours.  This is one of the companies where I threw out current base + current bonus in the first screening call and that's the last time that we talked about compensation until I got the job offer.  They offered what I was asking, and as I had counted on, there was a sweetener of company stock on top of that. At this point it had been a long time since I'd gotten a job offer.  The job was "good enough" and I couldn't think of any reasonable way to ask for more money.  Could I have gotten more if I tried?  There's no way to know. 

I've gotten more in a way that I hadn't counted on.  The company has been acquired and is going private, which means that instead of getting stock I'll be getting a cash payout every year for the value of the stock at closing.  I pay for insurance, but it's a Cadillac plan that pays for almost all of our expenses, so it's not too much of a dent in our bottom line.

All of this together takes me a bit above Dream Number.  While I don't get all of the cash on each paycheck, the bonus is quarterly instead of annual, so at least that spreads it out a bit.  The other money making opportunity is that you're allowed to cash out vacation time if you want.  There is a contingent of employees who have figured out the system and cash out their time when they get to the maximum number of vacation days that we're allowed to accrue.  HR has tried to put a stop to it, but management has a "look the other way" policy.

Company #7: Hot Startup

I've already told most of the story here, but this was a company that came to me at the same time that I had an unlovely experience at my current job.  When I said Dream Number, the recruiter's response was "that's fine.  The range goes up to $20k more".  I didn't get the job so it's a moot point, but I wonder what their offer would have been.

Company #8: Big Spender

I shared the story of Big Spender in this post.  There was a $15k gap in base salary between my number and theirs, and they tried to sell me on the idea that I should be considering PTO and insurance to be part of my pay.  I don't have a reason to take a pay cut, and there was nothing else about this company that stood out as a place that I wanted to work, so we ended the call and I never expected to hear from them again.

Well, well, well, would you look at what the cat dragged into my inbox:

Hmmm....seems like they found an extra $15k lying around the office and decided to throw it my way.  As fun as it would be to keep playing the game, I said thanks and that I was no longer interested in the position.

All the Other Companies

I don't have a count, but of course there have been other companies where the conversations ended because Dream Number was out of their range.  None of these other companies stand out in my mind because they didn't take the Big Spender tactic of trying to sell me that benefits were part of my pay and they didn't come back a week later and say "Just kidding!  We can totally pay that!"  All that I can say is that I appreciate them for bringing the compensation question up on the first call instead of at the offer letter stage like BootyMatic.

Let's Wrap it Up.  What have we learned here today?

Thing 1: I don't recommend taking a lower salary because of bonus, stock, or other perks.  I've seen it end badly.

As my former employer grew from startup to corporate behemoth they reined in salaries and started upselling the now-smaller bonuses, the benefits, and company provided lunches.  A lot of people got razzle-dazzled by "free lunch" and then left when they realized how expensive it was. 

Bonuses can be the devil.  There is no guarantee that you'll get the full amount, and at my former company if you left before the year was up you lost your bonus.  Every year right after bonus time was when everyone would quit (including me!).  In my case, my bonus was on top of the salary that I wanted so I always viewed it as a treat.  People who took a lower salary because of the bonus viewed it very differently.

Here is where I will give a shout out to my current employer: the bonus is quarterly and if you leave they still pay your bonus for the last quarter that you worked (prorated for the time that you were there).  It's worth asking about these details before you accept a job.  Sometimes a bonus is an incentive, and sometimes it's a leash.

For the stock thing, I'll throw some shade on my current employer.  There was a time when they gave out equity instead of raises and the stock price tanked.  The company got acquired and all shares will be bought by the new owners for a price that's a few dollars higher than the stock price was before the acquisition but a lot lower than it was in its prime.  That's great for newcomers like me and awful for the old timers.

Thing 2: Don't believe any salary that you see on Glassdoor.  Do believe the employee reviews.

At both my current and former employer there is a payroll role and salary listed on their Glassdoor pages.   The job title and the salary ain't mine but there's no one else at the company it could be.

Both companies posted positions for lower level payroll people before hiring me, so I'm assuming that's where the titles and the salaries come from.  I've known every salary at every company that I've worked for a good long while.  Some of what I see on Glassdoor is close, but a lot of it is garbage.

BUT BUT BUT I recognize a lot of what is said in employee reviews and there are some serious truths in there.  My former company went from a 4.6 to a 3.9 rating in my final months there and people were mighty candid about what was going on in the company.

Thing 3: They can't ask

One crutch that I used in my first interviews was to say that Dream Number was my current salary, and over time I've gotten more secure about just saying the number without a qualifier.  To be crystal clear, no interviewer has ever asked me what my current salary is and many of them phrase the compensation question "I'm not asking what you're making now, what are you looking for?"

I could be wrong, but I feel like the average person on the street still feels that they have to say what they're making in their current job and that's not the case.

I talked shop with the recruiters at my company about this a few years ago and got the scoop.  The reason that employers can't ask prospective employees what they make is because of pay inequality - the thing where women and minorities tend to make less than white men.  We always think of recruiters and HR as being bastards but all of them that I've talked to have felt very passionately about this issue. 

Also about the women and minority thing==>I've never seen an obvious example of this when I look at salaries at the companies that I've worked for.  Yes I see people who are underpaid for the work that they do, but other than internal hires (yeah sorry the rumors are true - people who get promoted get paid less than people who just walk in off the street) I've never been able to pinpoint a reason for it.  That doesn't mean that salary discrimination doesn't exist, I'm just giving a pat on the back to my employers for not doing it.

Thing 4: If you can make it there you can make it anywhere

I've heard many times "I can't make what I make here anywhere else".  As you know, I wondered if the same was true for me when I started my search.

Based on my experience with my job search and if we take a step back and think about it - baloney!  Companies are not suckers and they don't overpay people because they like them.  There's a reason why you make what you make.  Unless you work for your daddy or you're sleeping with someone your salary is a reflection of your value in the marketplace.  And maybe it still is if those things are true!

From what I've seen in my job search, there's a variation of pay with industry, location, and companies wanting to get you as cheap as they can.  It's true that I can't make the same money that I make at every company but there are enough were I can.  I challenge anyone who thinks that they can't make the same money in a different job to do what I did - start applying and see if the response is "who do you think you are" or "no problem".  Or maybe you ask for a whole lot more than you make now and see if the response is "no problem"😉

That's all I got!  Any crazy employer stories to share???


  1. I am glad you shared with us your job search stories. I have been actively looking for a new job for about six months and have had a few interviews, but nothing has really stuck and it's nice to hear that other people have similar stories, but come out okay in the end. I don't really have crazy stories, but I do know that if I get bad vibes/work culture sucks sort of feelings, I probably wouldn't leave my current job for it, even if the pay was a lot better.

    1. Oh absolutely I am going to spill the job search tea! I feel like a lot of the stories that I see online are "my employer looked at me cross eyed so I lifted my little finger and the next day I had 10 job offers for double the pay"

      And you make an excellent point that there isn't enough money in the world to take a job where you get bad vibes going in.

  2. An excellent post, Birchie! This is a must-read for anyone job hunting.
    Being a payroll accountant, you have more insight than any average applicant.

    My CV is boring: I only worked for an airline (12 years) and then for global Swiss banks (20 years). In hindsight, I could have done a better job at asking for more pay.

    1. Oof I could do a better job asking for more pay myself. Right now I feel like I'm priced right, but I know that I could have eked out a bit more $ in situations in the past. It's one thing going into a new job, but once you're there it's hard to get the leverage for more.

  3. This was all SO FASCINATING. When I got my last job, which was in the nonprofit world, I was coming to it from freelancing so my previous salary was like $25K higher than what I could hope to get. (It was that high to compensate for the benefits and social security I had to handle on my own.) I'd already had one job fall through (even though it seemed like it was a lock), and it seemed like maybe my previous salary was to blame. (Back then, they asked your current salary rather than asking for your salary expectations.) I was on an initial phone screen, so I was able to say, "This was my prior salary, but it was higher than expected because of XYZ." Anyway, then when I got the job offer, it was lower than I'd hoped, so I asked for $5-$10K more, and was told they couldn't do it. I really wanted the position so I asked if they could consider bumping it up to my desired range after six months and they agreed. It was a good compromise for me, especially since I really wanted that job and since I figured I could prove how valuable I was in six months.

    1. Eek benefits aren't cheap that's for sure and neither is social security. I only did contracting for a little while and I do not miss that part of it at all. Asking for a salary review after six months is smart!

  4. Well, I always love getting a glimpse into other worlds. I'm a massage therapist, and before that I was a musician (pretty sure I've never mentioned that before.) I have ZERO experience in the type of jobs/job searches you're describing. But, some of your advice is applicable to everyone. Anyway... I'll be curious to hear how it all works out for you!

    1. No I had no idea that you were a musician! I think you've mentioned that your husband is in a band and of course I remember the post where you wrote about your son taking the performance over the education track for his degree. Details please!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Another great reason to pursue a career in music and massage over the corporate life - it makes for better stories;-)

  5. I loved this post and hearing your thought process on all of this. Most of the jobs I have ever been considered for ask "what's your current compensation?" And I always hated when they asked that. I am glad recruiters are backing off that question because it's not your current salary that matters- it's how much you are willing to work for that matters. It is true that new hires are paid more than people who are promoted internally. That's because they can negotiate by saying "it's either $$ or I don't take the job" whereas internal employees are less likely to threaten to quit. Although that is happening more and more! Keep us updated on your search!

    1. Noooo!!!!! I remember being asked to provide salary histories in the past but that was a long time ago. My recruiters were so super passionate about this and I haven't encountered it in any of the interviews that I've done in the last year so I thought the "current comp" question was dead and gone. When we got employment verifications from new employers they would only ask about dates of employment and job titles, never salary.

  6. Thanks so much for sharing all this. Job hunting "scares me", especially since - you won't believe this - I've never job-hunted in my life. I landed my job through and internship and have basically had one non-competitive job interview. I also work for the government, so pay negotiation is not really a thing.
    I sometimes wonder what I could do in the cooperate world, but love my acquired perks (vacation time, flex schedule, federal holidays) too much to try.