Memo to the Board: Kill ‘Commensurate with Experience’

By Andrew Fretwell

The email from a friend and former colleague caught my attention as my Jewish networking senses started tingling. It was about a newly available job opening hot off the presses. For the right professional, the work was fascinating, the responsibilities were challenging, the team was fun, and the pay was … commensurate with experience. I sigh and delete the email.

It is time to toss “commensurate with experience.” Maybe it once was a good practice, but no longer; hiding salary ranges is a ruinous practice. Shall I count the ways? It allows for gender- and race-based wage gaps to linger and metastasize. It wastes time. It complicates the interview process. It both limits and dilutes the applicant pool. And more fundamentally, claiming that pay is commensurate with experience is pure fiction. Executives don’t post a job without already budgeting for its salary. I have an MBA and ten years of work experience, but you wouldn’t pay me $90k to be an administrative assistant, not due to my aptitude but because your organization probably hasn’t budgeted that much for the role. The salary range is predetermined; the decision to hire is what is based on experience. Listing pay as commensurate with experience is just a poorly veiled lie and that lie has real consequences.

How many qualified candidates are not crossing your radar because they cannot infer what “commensurate with experience” means? Does it mean $25-30k for an entry level job or $35-$40k? Should an executive expect to make $80k or closer to $120k? This obfuscation turns an already confusing map of idiosyncratic organizational hierarchies into an M.C. Escher drawing, making the Jewish nonprofit job market impossible to navigate. If candidates only learn the salary range after mustering the time and energy to apply, your entry barrier is too high. And if some applicants do know ahead of time because they are friendly with someone on the inside, you may end up enabling something akin to insider trading.

To those you hire, you send a message that you prefer secrecy and mind games to transparency. You show a willingness to keep your subordinates in the dark to save a buck. Talk all you want about building trust, “commensurate with experience” casts your next hire as a negotiations opponent instead of a team member. And it’s a bad negotiating tactic anyway! Salary negotiations are not a zero-sum game; ultimately the employer and hire need to work together to find a price point that rewards both sides; a truly successful outcome is a win-win.

All salary negotiations for a new hire end up in one of three ways: (1) the organization’s budget and the candidate’s self-valuation match so the hire is made, mazel tov; (2) the candidate’s self-valuation exceeds the budget and the hire is not made; or (3) the organization’s budget is greater than the candidate’s self-valuation, and the hire gets a nice pay bump. Listing the salary range benefits both sides in negotiations in five ways.

It clarifies expectations. Listing the salary range removes unnecessary ambiguity from the interview process (and its resulting anxiety) by providing a baseline for negotiations instead of dancing around it or waiting for the applicant to ask, “how much are you willing to pay me?”

It saves time. If the candidate knows ahead of time that the job doesn’t pay enough, he/she won’t waste their time applying, and you won’t waste your time interviewing them.

It can attract a stronger candidate pool. If an organization ends up paying a bit more (but not more than it has budgeted) than if they hide the salary range, they can use a higher salary as a competitive advantage to yield a stronger applicant pool.

It preempts pay discrimination. Organizations would concede the capability to take advantage of candidates, such as women and persons of color, who may not realize their true value and/or that their previous employers paid them less than their white male counterparts.

It makes the job market more navigable. If organizations routinely listed salary ranges for hires, professionals could more easily access the basic information to determine how their choices inform how much they will and can earn, and consequently can build a much more realistic career plan that aligns with their other life goals.

So why don’t more organizations post salary ranges? Is it inertia? Are organizations embarrassed by how little they pay? Is it because they think it’s a good negotiating tactic? These reasons are all garbage. The “commensurate” issue hides in plain sight and epitomizes a bevy of insufficiencies. If it is camouflaging how pathetically we pay our professionals, let’s stop enabling and let in the sunshine as a disinfectant. If it is done because it used to make sense, then let’s use this an opportunity to reinfuse our hiring policies with intentionality. This is exactly the type of precision change that can tip an organization towards transformation.

But don’t expect the professionals to solve this. This is exactly the kind of issue a busy executive would support changing but has about 1,000 other items to get to first. It is an issue that is important but not time sensitive, so it gets neglected. Board members must be the ones who choose this battle to make a stand and compel change. They have the influence to change deeply ingrained policies and the perspective to understand which issues cannot be deferred indefinitely in the name of “urgent” items.

Put it on the next board meeting agenda. Ask, “What are the actual risks of sharing the salary range on the job listing instead of waiting for the inquiry or interview stage?” If we commit to reasonable transparency, the benefits will be widespread throughout the field and tangible to organizations. All we need is the determination to make it happen. Are we up to it?

Andrew Fretwell worked as an educator and community activator for Young Judaea and the Birthright Israel Foundation between 2007 and 2016. He currently Co-Chairs Repair the World NYC’s Advisory Board and is a Client Executive at IBM.