Compensation can be looked at a few different ways. It is first and foremost your salary or hourly rate but it could also include your benefit package, profit sharing, bonuses, etc. It is often one of the first things you look at when you research or apply for a new job and the first thing people assume you want when your organization is showing that it values you. The funny thing is it is really just a base line.

How does it show they value me, or don’t?

If you took psych 101 somewhere along the way you likely learned about a man named Maslow. Back in the 1940s Maslow created a hierarchy of needs ranging from physical needs such as food and shelter at the bottom, followed by security, belonging, and esteem. It ends with self-actualization, needs that centered around achieving your highest potential, at the very tip of the pyramid. Just like in any hierarchy, you needed to fully achieve the base level and move yourself upward from there. For example, Maslow believed you can never get to concerns of security if you are still working on fulfilling your physical needs. Compensation is typically how we meet that base level. We need enough money to be able to buy what will satisfy our physical needs. We’re not able to meet that first level without some form of compensation. When you consider the security of health insurance or other benefits, we’re often not able to meet that second level without some form of compensation either.

I know what you’re thinking, surely this goes beyond the base level. I don’t want just enough money to have food, shelter, and the ability to see a doctor. I do use my compensation for other, more fun, things. I am sure you do, we all do. As we grow into adulthood we develop a standard of living. It includes our basic needs as well as other things that are important to us such as going to dinner, having a certain standard of car in the driveway, or traveling. We also plan for the future, saving for things like retirement or potential emergencies. While this clearly goes beyond a physical need, all of this becomes part of what the emotional side of us rolls into what we need‘ to cover with our compensation so we attribute it to being the baseline.

In order to feel that a company values our contributions we expect them to at a minimum meet our ability to continue those baseline ‘needs‘ through compensation. Most often, we wouldn’t even take a job if it didn’t meet that standard. In your current role, if your boss told you frequently what an asset you were to the company, provided you with glowing reviews and recommendations but didn’t pay you enough to meet the base line, you surely wouldn’t think the company valued their employees.

From the organizational standpoint, you could think of it as the foundation upon which the rest of the ways a company shows value are built. For example, when you first come into a new organization or a new position you are likely not adding a lot to the role right off the bat. The company is taking a chance and saying, we believe you to have value and that you will add value to our group, for that, we’re willing to pay. Before you do anything of value they are telling you that you are valued.

Compensation can also become a last resort of sorts when people aren’t feeling appreciated and valued within an organization. I have seen a number of people over the years lose influence and opportunities. They get frustrated and feel beaten down for months to even years some times. Inevitably they end up saying something like, “I don’t care what they ask me to do, just don’t take my salary.” To get to this point, this person has already quit their organization, they just haven’t left yet. If they get to a point that their compensation is cut either through demotion, no raise at review time, or changing expectations/responsibility in the same role, they often leave very soon after. The interesting thing is, they usually don’t get more money when they leave. They might take a lateral position with another company, pursue a completely different role/industry, or they may even knowingly take a step backward for a fresh start. This is very often because it was never about the money in the first place. These people felt undervalued and diminished for months if not years losing, or simply not making traction in getting, what would make them feel valued. Finally, that foundation we talked about was broken when compensation was affected.

If this is the level I’m in, what now?

The above likely resonated with many people, hopefully in the sense that the organization had faith in the value you would bring therefore paying based off that expectation. If that is the level you’re on and the reason you’re there, great. Keep raising the bar for yourself and the group and you’ll move to experiencing value in terms of status and title in no time.

If you’re returning to the foundational level you may notice yourself saying things like:
As long as they don’t take away my pay check. or It’s just a job. or I’ll do whatever and call me what you want just don’t change my salary.

If that is the case, I would do a little soul searching to determine if this is the right fit for you. You could have outgrown the company, the role may have changed and is no longer a good fit for you, there could have been a change in leadership somewhere that impacted you, or about a thousand other reasons. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. If the only value the company is showing you (or you’re perceiving) is a paycheck, that is not enough.

I would suggest two things, making objective lists and becoming an active participant.
List out all of the ways people within the organization showed you that you were valued. (hint the first one can be that they paid you this week) It could include that your manager is giving you clear feedback on areas to improve, you were asked what type of work you would prefer to work on, someone thanked you for your contribution. List everything you can think of. Then list the one thing that was the biggest reason you haven’t felt valued. You won’t need a whole exhaustive list for this one. Once that is done reread your list and assess how you feel. Once all of the objective points of value are listed out on the sheet are staring you in the face do you feel reassured in your position or does the one thing on the other side of the page, with all of its dread, anger, and frustration outweigh anything you could write down?
Plan for a potential job change based on this list and the emotion you’re having. For example, if once you looked at in black and white you felt more comfortable maybe you do nothing, or peruse job sites once every couple weeks to see what is out there. If you are a little more impassioned maybe you look more frequently and let a few of your connections know you’re open to new opportunities. If writing this out made you even more angry and fed up, you might update your resume and LinkedIn account, have relevant job postings delivered to you, and set up coffee dates with people who might be able to point you in the right direction.

I include emotion as a deciding factor in this, because it matters. What doesn’t matter is how your mom or spouse or co-workers feel about the circumstances. If I looked at your list and said, you’re fine stop expecting so much, that wouldn’t do anything to make you feel more valued. Conversely, if I read it and thought good grief run out of there as fast as you can, but you felt more comfortable who am I to tell you otherwise and try to motivate you in another direction? You spend far to much time at work to not enjoy it so while there are rough patches in every relationship (yes your job is a relationship) you need to decide how you feel, based on objective evidence, and act accordingly.

Things I’m reminding myself of

Money isn’t everything but it is important. There isn’t much you can do in this life that doesn’t cost something. We need it to survive in some respects and want it to be more comfortable in others. Keep in mind though, it is just the beginning.

Never run from something, always run toward something else. You might notice that I never said ‘leave’ above when describing how to plan a potential exit from the organization. It isn’t about leaving the work you’re doing or leaving the atmosphere you’re doing it in. It is about finding a position that allows you to do that work in a new atmosphere. It is finding a new way to use your skills and talents. You may know you only started planning an exit because of the situation you were in but when you find the right role at the right organization, you’ll be empowered knowing you didn’t ‘escape’ the prior environment you had to leave it behind to get to the next step.

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