Coins versus Calling…

The featured image above is from an episode of a series called Insecure. Molly is a hard-working, high achieving lawyer who derives much of her value and significance from the work she does at the firm. One day, the paycheque of her colleague (who is an equal in terms of  qualifications and job role) ends up in her hands. Molly finds out that he earns WAAAYYY more than she does. Imagine that!

“How much do you earn?” is a question most people find super sensitive – or even rude! For those job-seeking, “What are your salary expectations?” might be a question you have been asked often. Having heard this phrase before myself, (see previous post on job search journey), I have sometimes felt torn between giving a number that matches the value I believe I bring to the table whilst not wanting to spoil my chances of getting the role (what if other candidates are happy with a smaller salary bracket???).

Of course, I did my preliminary research on search engines such as Indeed.com and LinkedIn to figure out pay scales to request a fair wage. I even went through the awkwardness of asking friends in similar career paths how much they earn. They all offered very wide salary brackets (understandably so) and advised me to account for other benefits of the job as well…

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Do non-financial employment benefits such as growth opportunities make more sense than money to you? I conducted a poll on Instagram, and 71% of you responded yes, you’d choose growth and development opportunities over salary earned.

When asked why, some base it on personal preference and the type of lifestyle they choose to live, others consider financial obligations (e.g. black tax), and the rest say it’s about prioritising their calling over coins. Calling refers to a strong inner impulse toward a particular career path, especially when accompanied by personal conviction or beliefs.

Is a smaller number really okay if the company is a recognised brand and offers you great opportunities such as training, travel, and even mentorship? Is it fair to choose a ‘suitable’ career over earnings growth? I received interesting perspectives from different people:

Some reckon that growth prepares you for next phase of your career where those learned skills can be applied to bigger deals and projects. In other words, money will accompany growth opportunities later. What about bills and debit orders though? Even basic needs are expensive these days! I was told that this is where sacrifices in our 20’s should be made, i.e. living at home, driving a smaller car, limiting unnecessary expenses, etc.

On the other hand, those who earn high salaries but hate their jobs feel like the unhappiness in the workplace is not worth it. Other high earners are happy to endure a lousy work environment with lack of mentorship and growth opportunities for a short-term period: “We chase money for now and find growth in other avenues such as side hustles and external development programs.” There are those who are saving that extra money so they can use it to pursue what they really want to do (e.g. entrepreneurial ventures). For some the coins versus career trade-off depends on timing and the season  of life they currently find themselves.

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A consistent response is that (young) people want to be rewarded fairly for their hard work. Some would not take a pay cut (because debit orders and bond payments are real!), but are willing to shift to another role for same pay if it means more growth opportunities. Interestingly, many said they would neither take a pay cut for growth; nor would they choose a disengaging role for wads of money either. Young people want best of both worlds!

So can one get both? Is it feasible to find a job which pays well and is also fulfilling?  Or is this possible only later in your career? For those of us still in our 20s, this trade-off is an extremely tricky one!

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A friend relocated to South Africa after working abroad for a few years. Upon return, this friend took a job at a well-known private sector firm in Johannesburg. Everyone in his/her cohort who accepted the role took a substantial pay cut, but the role was prestigious and offered amazing growth, development and networking opportunities.

My friend recalls how one evening they went out for drinks as the cohort and the topic of salaries came up. One colleague disclosed that he/she managed to secure a salary higher than what was offered to everyone on the program. Apparently, this colleague motivated for a higher package based on his/her experience and financial obligations.

It is clear then that people who are certain about the value they bring to an organisation are able to negotiate for a better salary in the company they believe will provide them growth…

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Another notable perspective received is the importance of communicating the tangible value you create. Some people are in the type of professions where their contribution to the organisation can be linked to measurable outcomes, e.g. sealed deals, clients pleased, successful proposals, sales increases, etc. Perhaps this may not be as obvious or easy to measure for all professions, but is worth consideration nonetheless.

The topic of salaries is both delicate and complex. At the end of the day, people are motivated by different things, so self-interest drives choice between coins and calling. Although this blog post offers more questions than answers, the key take-home points are the following:

  1. Firstly, everybody wants to feel valued in the workplace, and money is the obvious proxy to measure this value.
  2. Secondly, a job becomes a good fit because of who you are, what you make of it, and how you find ways to add value in that space (which could you lead you to an even better job).
  3. Thirdly, be brave enough to negotiate! Be intentional about recording clearly the key contributions you have made in the organisation and use that for bargaining power.
  4. Finally, there is no doubt that most millennials are looking for purposeful work, to be seen as human beings, to be remunerated fairly.

Do you derive your value in a company with remuneration, titles and position? Is this sustainable? How does one strike a nice balance between the money and development? Please comment below with your opinion, experience or any advice on this matter.

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5 thoughts on “Coins versus Calling…

  1. I think that if we are all graduates entering a grad program then our salaries should be the same. Especially if we all have the same level of qualifications.
    I also think that one should not have to sacrifice remuneration now for growth and development’s sake. As you mentioned even basic needs are expensive.
    So what’s gonna end up happening from my side is I’m always gonna give you my bare minimum level of work. I won’t stay later than what I am paid to and I won’t go beyond what I have to cos my effort doesn’t match your value of me.

    It’s very tricky to not price yourself out of the Labour market because sometimes you don’t know what a reasonable amount to ask for is. And that’s largely fueled by the fact that we are expected to keep salaries confidential which honestly just makes very little sense to me and opens up so many avenues to be exploited. I mean if a company really had nothing to hide then they wouldn’t lose sleep over employees chatting about salaries. I strongly believe in sharing as much information as possible with fellow colleagues especially black colleagues and aspiring black grads, just so they can make better informed decisions.

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    1. Hi M. You raise such real and relevant points. I agree with you on the need for more transparency with salaries from companies. I wish you all the best in your career journey. May you be both fulfilled and well-remunerated!

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  2. Thanks Sibahle, some interesting points raised.
    Personally, I’m not about being underpaid but I agree that it is very hard to ask for that fair compensation.
    One area where I think people are intentionally underpaid is the start-up space. I do think it would be unreasonable to expect start-ups to pay market related salaries but it is equally unreasonable to expect people to sacrifice for the entrepreneur’s dream. Start-ups must just find a way to make sure employees get some benefit when the company finally does well.

    In an ideal world, I agree people who do the same job should be paid the same. I started my career in such an environment where qualifications and experience didn’t matter but the role performed did. If anyone thought they deserved more, all they had to do was to quickly work their way up and earn the big bucks. This avoided having experienced or educated people who do not necessarily add value being paid more than those who add value.

    Unfortunately, in practise it doesn’t work like this. My wife and I figured out that the salary each person is paid is the amount the employer thinks they need to keep doing their job. A big consideration here is lifestyle, if they know you to live an expensive life, they will pay you to maintain it and if you live cheaply, they will pay you to maintain that life. A lot of black people are underpaid because they do not live expensive lives (therefore their perceived retention cost is lower). Often even if they do, because they do not socialise with management, it is not known that they live large.

    I am not a big fan of assimilating and adopting other people’s habits just because we share an environment but this might be one of the ways people make sure they get paid fairly. I don’t think it’s a risk to ask for a big number when looking for a job, if they want you they will pay. Someone once told me of a story where a black PA asked for R6,000 a month and white PA asked for R20,000. They hired the white lady. So sometimes just add an extra 30-50% and see what happens.

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    1. *Snapping my fingers* on the need for startups to still pay it forward! You raise such a good point when you note that being underpaid is correlated with lower perceived retention costs… Thank you for the input, Mahlwane: it’s definitely insightful for me and others reading it. All the best with your career trajectory!

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