by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR
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Question: “Where can I research pay bands for institutions that do not list a salary in the job description?”
Answer from Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR: The question about where to find pay bands for institutions that do not list salaries should properly be thought of as “How can I approximate what an organization is willing to pay for the skills and experiences of someone like mine?” There is and will always be a dissymmetry of information about pay between applicants and employers. New laws being adopted across the country will reduce the difference, but it will not eliminate it for a variety of reasons to be explored here.
The first thing to know is that there is a salary range and a hiring range. Further, ranges are designed to accommodate all players in the marketplace with similar skills. That is, they accommodate rookies, veterans, and superstars. Furthermore, companies’ pay policies vary significantly. Many ranges for professional positions are as low as 40%, and some are as wide as 80% or more. Expressed in examples, the middle of a salary range — which usually means the average salary in a labor market — might be $50,000, thus the range for an accountant might be $40,000 to $60,000 or $35,000 to $65,000 depending upon the pay philosophy, policies, and practices of the organization. Additionally, this information only accounts for the external marketplace.
The other side of the coin is the internal marketplace. A hiring range is what the organization has budgeted, ‘expects,’ or intends to pay. Which range — salary or hiring — is published is not always clear. The two overriding factors for the hiring range are what other incumbents within the organization earn, and the organization’s current ability to pay. An organization that pays ‘behind the market’ due to its financial position may underpay internal employees. If that is the case, they are unlikely to pay new employees better and risk demotivating incumbents. As an example, if accountants with 6 and 12 years of experience work for the organization and earn $44,000 and $49,000 instead of $46,000 and $54,000 in a 40% range, they are unlikely to pay a new employee with 10 years of experience a deserved $50,000.
Therefore, even if you had the salary bands, you may not be getting the information that you assume you are getting. It must be noted that until recently, public and private organizations were not required to publish their salary ranges — almost without exception. Historically, however, almost all public employers at the local, state, and national levels published their ranges voluntarily. They have done so because it’s just good public policy. Private colleges and universities and businesses alike rarely publish their ranges. The landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years — and even weeks. New York City’s new pay transparency law took effect on November 1, 2022. It reflects an emerging — though not rapid — national trend requiring ranges to be shared.
Getting this information will help narrow down what an organization expects to pay, but it will still be an approximation. Is the salary range old or new — that is, has it kept up with the market? If the organization does not actively publish the information on its website, the next best course of action is to simply call the human resources office and ask for information about the position you are applying for. Sometimes the information is shared internally and transparently, but it is just not published on the web for all to see — including competitors. Another option is to ask for the range at the time you are invited for an interview. Most organizations are prudent enough to share this information with candidates for fear they may turn down the invitation.
Notwithstanding the above, whether the organization is public or private, in a municipality or state with pay transparency laws, or has a philosophy to pay with-, behind-, or ahead-of-the-market, everyone should do considerable research to ascertain what the prevailing market salary range is for the positions they are applying for. The market range is the market range, and it accounts for many variables.
Larger and wealthier organizations tend to pay more on average, but they still pay within the range in the vast majority of cases. A small local business might pay accountants $35k-54k, a regional bank might pay $42k-58k, the university might pay $44k-62k, and corporations in town may pay $52k-65k. Organizations pay within their means. It is important to note that non-profits almost always pay with or behind the market in cash, but tend to compete on offering better benefits and more stability.
In addition to the college or university website, some of the best sources of information on pay ranges can be found with professional associations and government agencies. Professional associations often conduct annual surveys of member institutions and produce reliable information. Government agencies do the same and their ranges are always accurate, though they are usually very, very broad. This is because they account for all factors to include apprentices and multiple geographies — small towns, big cities, etc. Ads for open positions at other organizations are good sources of information as well, but the only ones that matter are the competitors of the organization in question. Comparing the salary range of the local corporation with the college is not parallel. Comparing schools in the south and the northeast is equally not as accurate.
Specialty organizations also have reliable salary information since they may re-publish professional association and government agencies’ reports or gather their own proprietary data. In all cases, using multiple sources from reliable organizations is the best way to approximate what the market salary might be. As noted, this research only provides one-third of the information needed. The second part is the organization’s pay ranges and pay practices. The third part is almost never known, that is how the organization is currently situated financially and how they are currently paying their incumbents. Internal factors determine if the full range is in play or if there are internal limiting factors.
Finally, here is a worthy tidbit. You should also make an honest assessment how your skillset and experience compare to others. Everyone wants a top salary and almost everyone inflates their capabilities. A general rule of thumb is that the first quartile is for professionals with 1-5 years of experience, the second quartile is for those with 6-10 years of experience, the third and fourth are for professionals with 10-15 and 16 more years of experience, respectively, in equivalent positions. Note that equivalent positions and total professional experience are not equated the same. Good market research is required, and it provides an order of magnitude for consideration; however, it will not give you a complete picture of what an organization is willing and able to pay.
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