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Let’s talk about pay

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Conversation 01

Six months ago, I wrote a blog about my experiences as a project manager over the past four years and my goals for the next four. It was the first time I had openly offered my opinions and ambitions to professional colleagues and, unsurprisingly, the topic of my goal, ‘£50k by 30’, started an interesting conversation.  

As project professionals, we know that sharing knowledge and lessons with our colleagues is an important development tool, but we haven’t quite adopted the same openness when talking about what we are paid. Despite the vulnerabilities of opening ourselves up to such a triggering topic, the more I learn and grow in the profession, the more the surreptitiousness surrounding the pounds and zeroes baffles me.  

One of the comments on LinkedIn read: “I am uncomfortable with the framing of success being linked to finances.” I felt confronted – called out on my ambition, which, at a time of such economic uncertainty, made me consider whether my measure of salary was out of touch and even narcissistic.  

That feeling of caution and trepidation in whether I was starting too delicate a debate crept in, but this was exactly the conversation I wanted to have. So, here are three further points to consider when entering the jobs market – because the question is so much more than just how much you want to be paid.  

Understand the market  

It starts with knowing what market you want to be in. Think about what motivates you. I’ve recently realised that one of my biggest motivators is money. While that feels a bit wrong, I think it’s more common than people let on. We live in an age of comparison culture where ‘having it all’ feels almost an entitlement, but ‘having it all’ means spending big so wanting a bigger pay packet is a natural fall-out.  

However, one of the comments on my article read: “You need to leave the public sector; you’ll get paid more.” I’ve no doubt that there is (some) truth to this, but it also forced me to realise that my goal of £50k by 30 was constructed around the industry I knew and the benefits I knew came with the salary. While I am money motivated, I have spent most of my career in part-time study, trialling different parts of the system and, for a good chunk, finishing before 1pm on a Friday.  

There is no doubt I will trial industries outside government during my career, but knowing what I want from the labyrinth that is work-life balance will guide my hand when the time comes to choose a new sector.  

Know your worth  

So, through trial and error, you’ve started to understand what makes you tick. You’ve identified your deal-breakers and your nice-to-haves and through networking and researching various industries you know where to go to get what you want. Now for the difficult bit – knowing your worth. 

Nobody likes negotiating pay and, thankfully, I’ve never had to – the public sector uses pay bands with (almost) zero wriggle room. Nonetheless, it’s a key step to ensuring what you earn is in line with the current market value. But given many job adverts list the salary as ‘competitive’, it can be difficult to know what that market value is without basing it on your current pay. 

Opening the conversation about pay across the profession will give us a better point of comparison. It reminds us where we’ve got to and shows us what we could aim for, but without the conversation to establish the baseline, how do we know if what we believe to be fair or aspirational is actually selling us short?   

Negotiating options  

Negotiating pay is one thing, but ensuring you are earning your market equivalent in an industry where pay is non-negotiable can be an even bigger challenge.  

As project professionals, we are used to making trade-offs within time, cost and quality parameters. We can prioritise requirements and make sacrifices depending on what is most important to delivery – and negotiating our options when it comes to our jobs follows the same ethos. Thinking back to your deal-breakers and nice-to-haves, is there anything on your list which isn’t a cash equivalent? These are your requirements, your bartering tools for negotiation.  

When I first joined the public sector at 22, my offer letter was ‘non-negotiable’. I accepted the job without hesitation, and I have never looked back. However, my second non-negotiable offer letter was upped by almost 25 per cent through funded study and my third by around 15 per cent to support my MSc thesis.  

Through open conversations with colleagues and my wider network, I could position myself in line with the market and negotiate to an equivalent value, even thought that wasn’t necessarily in terms of pay.  

I know priorities change and money doesn’t always have to be top of the list, but it will always be important. A quick web search will show you I am not alone in this plea, but until we can broach it without the misconception that it is rude to ask or boastful to share, we are all limited by the knowledge we choose not to share.  

For more insights on salary within the project profession, check out APM’s Salary and Market Trends Survey. 


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  1. Ashok Singha
    Ashok Singha 10 February 2022, 03:06 PM

    Really nice article Daisy. You hit it on the head. It's like benefits management, everything boils down to "Quantitative - Money" or "Qualitative - Perks" of the job and Life work balance. So you should never be ashamed to ask for a package that is your worth. That's what all the businesses ask of us. So, my point is to know your value know your market and if the hiring company will not recognise your value you go to the next company that will. Harder than said unless your own finances are sound. After 20years in the freelance market, I can say I am, and I do know my worth and value. Attending an interview you should be able to express that value and the business should be able to recognise it. Top tip, if a job says competitive package you phone the agency up and ask them what that means. If they don't give you the response, move on or tell them what you are after once you have studied the Job requirement and looked at what the value of that job is. A story - I got a linked-in blind message from an agency years ago. Said got a job in Portfolio Management, paying £50k would you be interested. I responded back say that package is toooooo low... and left it at that. A few weeks later same agency came back and we had a chat over the phone. The agency soon realised my value. At that point, we were talking 6 figure sums or close to it. Once that was established and the agency went back to their client, I got an interview. Like you said know your value and show your value at the interview with examples. Those numbers they give you initially are testing the waters, especially when you know £50k was a ridiculous starting point. But I suspect someone with little knowledge of what they have would have thought great 50k. Who would think that? Someone with a mortgage, and been working in a 45k job for most of their permanent career life, and was having to meet the mortgage every month, probably stretched themselves a bit. You can only do what I do if you know your own financial standing is good, and hence turning away an opportunity is ok as there is the next one next day, week, month. Thanks again. Ash