When the subject turns to salaries, an IT consultant in the New York area sums up the feelings of many workers when he says, "I'm probably paid a little less than I'm worth."
Now he wants to change that. "I'm exploring my options," the consultant says, asking to be identified only as Eric because he fears he could jeopardize his current position if his firm finds out he is job-hunting.
Eric has plenty of company. A survey released Monday by Salary.com reveals that nearly 60 percent of workers seeking jobs claim they are underpaid. But in a surprising twist, the salary data website finds that nearly 20 percent are actually overpaid. Less than 20 percent are underpaid.
"Phrases like 'overworked and underpaid' perpetuate that feeling," says Lena Bottos, director of compensation for Salary.com. The online survey of employee satisfaction and retention polled nearly 14,000 workers and some 400 human-resources managers in a wide range of industries.
Salaries have long been cloaked in secrecy for many workers, making comparisons difficult. Now, online salary data sites enable workers to measure their pay against comparable positions in their field and location.
"You network with your peers, and absolutely they talk about salaries," Eric says. "At least they talk about ranges. Just looking around at what ranges are offered, you have an idea of the market rate. The consensus among my peers is that the way to get a good raise is to switch companies."
Another survey, done in 2005 by Hudson Highland Group, finds that only half of workers believe they are paid on a par with their peers.
The number of employees in the Salary.com poll who describe themselves as "very likely" to leave their current jobs increased more than 50 percent in the past year.
"There are a lot more new jobs," Ms. Bottos explains. "People see that the market is starting to pick up. The grass is always greener."
At the same time, employees are becoming "a little bolder" in terms of what they think they are worth, says Jeff Cooper, a senior business consultant at Authoria, a talent-management software company in Waltham, Mass.
Employers themselves have unwittingly created some of the confusion. When the economy slows, some companies inflate workers' titles in lieu of salary increases. Salary.com finds that nearly 30 percent of respondents are "over-titled."
"When a manager wants to reward an employee and doesn't have the budget to do so, you tack on 'supervisor,' 'manager,' 'director,' or 'senior' to their title," Bottos says. "But the problem then arises that you've given someone this 'manager' title, but they don't manage. You've created a disconnect between what their title is and what their salary should be."
Workplace experts caution that titles are deceiving and vary from company to company. "In the end, a title is what goes on someone's business card," says Lauren Williams, a managing partner with Princeton Search Group, an executive search firm. "It speaks very little to their abilities. What could be a manager in one company could be a director in another. An executive assistant in one company could be a receptionist in another. But responsibility is responsibility. That's what people can be accounted on and compensated for."
Whatever their title, many employees who are dissatisfied with their income say that a 10 percent raise would be enough to keep them for another year, according to Salary.com. Bottos calls that "an interesting number, because it isn't outrageous."
Employees at smaller companies may be more likely to feel underpaid. "We don't pay the most money," says Tobin Johnson, a manager for an independent financial services company in Minneapolis. As a result, he explains, "You have a small, select group of people who talk about it and try to do something about it by adding to their personal marketability. But there are also people who talk about it and do nothing to change their situation."
Barbara Stanny, author of "Overcoming Underearning," finds underearning particularly prevalent among women, but notes that it also affects men. "I would like the message spread that anyone can make more than they are now, if that's what they want," she says. "It's much more in our control than we realize."
She cautions against simply blaming a company if its pay scale is lower than an employee would hope. "To make more money, we have to do things like speak up and ask, say 'no' to a lower offer and walk away, and make changes that we don't want to make."
Workers who want a raise must show managers that they deserve it, says Allyson Lewis, a motivational coach in Jonesboro, Ark. Sometimes just a small amount of extra effort can make the difference between being almost successful and getting a raise. Even reading one nonfiction book a month, she suggests, can increase an employee's knowledge on the job.
When workers consider leaving because of pay, Bottos says, they need to find out what people are earning in that job across the board as well as in companies like theirs. "The reality may be, you might be being paid fairly."
If someone is not being paid fairly by market standards, Bottos suggests doing some 'What if?' scenarios: What if I move? What if I go to a larger company? What if I change industries? "Take a look at how the pay would change, so you can find out if the grass is really greener."
Typically, individuals who stay with a company for their entire career earn below market value, Ms. Williams says. Those who change jobs every five or six years tend to be equal or above market standards. But making too many changes can have negative effects.
To some extent, Williams adds, your current salary will follow you to your next position. The hiring organization takes that number into consideration when it determines a salary.
For those who do not want to make a job change, Mr. Cooper offers tips to getting a good raise:
First, find out what your company wants to achieve in 2006. "Knowing what is important to your boss helps you make your boss look good, which makes you look like a good candidate for a big raise," he says.
Ask your boss, "If I do this, this, and this, and set goals for the quarter or year, would I be a candidate for a bonus or salary increase?"
E-mail your boss when you make achievements. "Your company cannot reward you for work it doesn't know you're doing."
When you ask for a raise, do not use competing offers as leverage unless you are prepared to leave. Bluffing can backfire.
Finally, consider other forms of remuneration.
"There are ways employers and employees can get creative around what reward and compensation mean," Cooper says. Perks such as telecommuting several days a week might not put a lot more money in the bank, but they could improve your quality of life. And telecommuting, he points out, could reduce commuting and child-care expenses.
Eric, the IT consultant, says his solution will be to leave. His manager does not have the authority to give a meaningful salary increase.
Yet he considers his eventual departure regrettable. "I really like my managers," he says. "The guy I report directly to is one of the best people I've ever worked for. But for better or worse, money is how you're valued. I've taken on progressively more responsibility. I'm just not seeing that reflected in my paycheck."
When companies do find ways to reduce this kind of turnover, workplace experts see benefits for both sides. "It's in an organization's best interest to pay their employees fairly," says Williams. "It keeps them there, and it keeps them happy."