The Hill Life: More Work = More Pay

Feb 1, 2012

Last week, I received an e-mail from a junior staffer that concerned me.  You see, the girl had been working as a staff assistant in a Hill office for $27k per year.  When the junior legislative assistant/legislative correspondent above her quit unexpectedly, the chief of staff assigned all of the former employee’s duties to the staff assistant “temporarily.”  

Three months later, the chief informed our staff assistant that he would be promoting her to the higher position and promoting the current intern to staff assistant.  The former staff assistant’s new salary?  $30k.  Her predecessor’s starting salary as found on Legistorm? $33k.  

So she asked me, “When is a good time to ask for a raise to the higher salary?”

First off, if your supervisor ever asks you to take on a significant number of new responsibilities, even temporarily, you need to be compensated accordingly.  Never accept significantly more work without a bump in pay or benefits, even if the work and the bump will only be temporary.  (This advice does not apply to a one-time, short-lived project. Projects are opportunities to prove your value so that you can build your reputation and experience and parlay that into a raise or promotion later.)

Some of you will say, “But Belle, by taking on the work without asking for compensation, and proving she could handle the responsibility, the SA showed that she was a “team player,”virtually guaranteeing that she’d get the promotion.”  

To that, I say, “Bullsh*t.”  The only thing the SA told her Boss by accepting more work for no compensation was that she was willing to take less than she deserved.  And what if she hadn’t gotten that promotion, then where would she be?  Stuck at the SA level with no immediate hope of advancement, after three months of wasted effort for which she received no compensation.  I’ve seen it happen.

So, if your Boss ever asks you to take on more responsibility, even temporarily, you need to ask for more some kind of compensation.  Maybe it’s a boost in your salary, or a boost in benefits, or a few extra vacation days, but you need to get something extra for the extra work that you’re doing.  And if your Boss is insistent that the work is just temporary, ask him/her to put a clock on it.  

For example, if you do the job for 30 days and they haven’t hired anyone, you will automatically get the promotion and the full higher salary.  There is no reason why your Boss shouldn’t be able to find someone in a month to six weeks, and if you do the job well during that time, maybe the Boss will feel like he or she doesn’t need to go looking for a replacement.  If they do hire someone else by the end of the trial period, keep doing your job at a high level and add all the new skills that you learned during that time period to your resume.  Then, ask your Boss why you weren’t given the promotion.  If you don’t like the answer, start looking for work elsewhere.  Because it’s unlikely that someone who would pass you over once, will give you a boost later on.

Secondly, on the topic of salary, sometimes when a Boss gives you a promotion and says your salary will be X, you feel so grateful for the bump, that you don’t ever stop to wonder if the increase is fair.   This is a mistake that I made in my younger years, and I will never make it again.  

With the wealth of information available to Hill staffers about what the other people in their office earn, there is no reason why you shouldn’t know what the people immediately above you are making.   So that if/when you are offered a promotion, you know what the appropriate salary is.  (You should always factor in experience level and education, when determining fair compensation.  So make sure you know where your predecessor started salary-wise and what his/her experience/education level was at the time.)

Clearly, the office felt that previous employee (who had no more experience than our SA, I checked) was worth $33k starting salary.  That means that our SA should have immediately countered her $30k offer with the higher number, respectfully explaining that she had already proven that she could do the job and was worth more.  By initially accepting the $30k offer, the SA, once again, told her Boss that she was willing to work for less, which will make it harder for her to get a raise in the future.

Every time you discuss salary with your Boss, be prepared to negotiate.  Know what the previous employee was making and how his/her experience compared to yours.  Know what other staffers in similar offices are making.  And let that knowledge inform your position in the negotiation.  Clearly, the LC/LA job was a $33k per year job, and our SA should not have simply accepted the new responsibilities and the lower salary without a fight.

The truth is, most women don’t like conflict.  Even I, as opinionated as I am, hate it.  It makes me anxious.  But when you’re talking about standing up for what you’re worth in a professional setting, you need to get over it.  

If you know that a job pays a certain wage, and you’re offered less than that wage, it’s time for an informed and respectful negotiation.  Supervisors usually anticipate that their first offer will be rejected, so they low ball you most of the time.  If you take the lower offer, you’re telling them that you don’t know what the job or you are worth.  Never give your supervisor the impression that you are willing to work for less, or the Boss will come to expect that in the future and you’ll never reach your desired/earned compensation level.  Set the tone early in your career, and it will be easier in the future.

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  1. hillybilly says:

    Belle, this is really helpful and good topic, especially for WOMEN! But it's just unfortunate timing that budgets are being cut right now for alot of congressional offices. In fact, the only office that's safe right now is the Ethics office. So, it might be a bit harder to ask for that promotion if said woman is not in Ethics office. How do you suggest we address promotions with the current state of affairs (budget axe swinging) in mind?

  2. Belle says:

    Manager: The post cautions jobseekers to take into account experience and education level when considering their salary requests. In this case, the previous employee had no discernible educational or work experience when she started that the Staff Assistant did not have.

  3. ed says:

    This is a great piece, Belle. But I wonder if any staffers can speak to the realities of raises what with the budget cuts we've seen in the last year or two? And if you're told it's not going to happen – for instance, if the former SA was told that with the budget cuts, they could no longer afford to pay that position $33k – how do you weigh whether to stay and wait it out or whether to go?

  4. Zoe says:

    I completely agree with you Belle. I get so angry when I hear about SAs that take on LC work and more because no one new has been hired. The office saves so much money by not hiring someone new that the least the SA should get is a couple thousand dollars in compensation especially if they wind up doing it for months. I would note that because of budget cuts, our Hill office announced that all new positions would be making 2k less than normal as starting salary. So, for example, our new SA started at 30k instead of 32k like I did but it's all out in the open so everyone knows its not a reflection on a particular person.

  5. Belle says:

    ed: The issue is that she never even asked for the $33k. If the Boss had come back and said look, “We've go to cut by 10%, we can't pay that,” then should could have come back and asked for another type of compensation, maybe a couple of extra days off or some more student loan money, etc. And if there was still nothing, then that's the spot she's in. But she knew that $33k was the bar for the position, and she never even mentioned it.

    Zoe: Same point, I get that there are cuts, but she never asked for, nor was she offered an explanation as to why she would be making less.

  6. ed says:

    Yep, I understand that, just was hoping that staffers could speak to my question while we're on the subject of raises. Thanks!

  7. TrailBlaizer says:

    I guess I'm old school, but I always figured my salary was getting my boss 100% of my effort on whatever he needs me to do. As I develop professionally, I can do more and am, therefore, worth more to my employer. I never saw it as payment for specific jobs – I'm not a contractor, I'm a salaried employee.

    A salaried employee who can fit more into her day is a salaried employee who hasn't been giving their boss 100%. It's not a measure of what jobs you are asked to do, but what value you bring to the office. That, not the “more responsibility” is the metric against which someone should be paid more.

    The idea that all of my co-workers are worth the same amount because they all have the same title is silly. Your salary shouldn't be determined by the sum of your responsibilities: it should be influenced also by the quality of your work product, the effort put in and even the appeal to outside/competing offices to hire you away.

  8. Belle says:

    ed: Sorry, I didn't read your whole post through. If it were me, I'd decide if I could continue to live on the lower number. If I could, for how long would I be willing to make less? Is there anyone above me (LAs) who has talked about leaving? If so, when? And if I take this job and do it for 9 months to a year, am I in a better position to find something better paying elsewhere? If I don't want to take less, can I find something else quickly?

    If the reason is budget, and you feel comfortable that you can live on the lower number for a period of time, then you should stay unless you have another offer on the table at that moment. Then you should develop a plan of how long you plan to stay, when you plan to start looking for work, and who can help you find work. Network more, learn as much as you can, and keep an eye out for jobs that could open up after the election.

  9. Zoe says:

    I wasnt disagreeing with you Belle. I was just pointing out what budget cuts look like in our office and that its best when its out in the open/open for discussion.

  10. Belle says:

    TB: So if your Boss said to you, “You're doing a great job as Staff Assistant, but I also need you to write every letter that we send, help the LAs with their research, and handle the LDs calendar.” You wouldn't ask for more money? Even if, like the SA who emailed me, it meant coming in to work at 7:00AM and leaving well after everyone else because you are essentially doing two jobs?

    In some cases, taking on a project or a new responsibility or two might not warrant more money, it might just be an opportunity for growth. But when you're being asked to do the work of two people, you absolutely deserve to be compensated.

    When you accept a job, you take a salary that is respectful of the work you will be doing and the value of that work to your Boss. When you accept a significant amount of responsibility that has been deemed of greater value by your Boss, you should expect to be compensated for the amount and importance of that work.

    You wouldn't ask the Staff Assistant to also do the work of a Comm Director and keep the same salary even if they had time to write all the press releases, make all the calls and handle all of the media requests and still do their SA job. But you might ask the SA to help write a release or two and make a few pitch calls without extra compensation. There is a difference between picking up a few tasks to fill your day and doing a completely different job with a larger amount of more important work.

  11. Belle says:

    Zoe: Oh I know, I was just clarifying my point because I know budgets are tight right now, and I wouldn't want to give the impression that there might not be a reason for the lower salary. But whatever it is, you need to know that.

  12. Anon says:

    When do you think is an appropriate time to ask for a raise – i.e. how many months in?

  13. Belle says:

    Anon: You have to use your best judgment. But I would never ask for a raise before I had at least 6 months in. And truth be told, I wouldn't feel comfortable asking until I had a year of experience. But Hill offices are strange in that there is a lot of turnover, and a two year cycle. So you need to keep your pulse on things.

    But I would say if there are no significant changes to your position in your first year, one year is the benchmark.

  14. Anie says:


    Thanks for bringing this up. It's worth noting that this—asking for more salary—is a place where women continually screw themselves over. Women habitually ask for less money up front and ask for fewer raises than men. And the fact of the matter is, every employer is going to low-ball you, because they want to get you cheap. Women, unfortunately, are taught to think that they should accept the low figure—even if they KNOW that they're worth more.

    If you think a salary is low, say so. Especially if you can come in with numbers that back you up—say so! Don't screw yourself out of fair and equal compensation by refusing to ask for it.

  15. Heatherskib says:

    Wow- suddenly I understand what I've been doing wrong….

  16. Belle says:

    Heatherskib: It's never too late to do better. Read this:

  17. KRR says:

    Belle: I know that you have experience specifically on Capitol Hill but do you have any advice for women outside the Hill on how to put a $ to job responsibilities and ultimately know what's a fair offer for a raise vs. what your boss might be offering?

    PS I love these real life discussions mixed in with the fashion! Keep it up!

  18. Madeline says:

    I highly recommend “Knowing Your Value: Women, Money and Getting What You're Worth” by Mika Brezinski. I learned so much about being a women and knowing that it's ok to ask for more money if you deserve it. Any girl needs to read this book no matter how old she is..

  19. Belle says:

    KRR: That is a tough question. I think the best way to know what the pay scale is for your area is to have a good network of people in the same field. Other people are always a good way to dig into pay scale. Also, local professional societies might have some info that you don't. also has some tools to figure out salaries in your area. But I'm not sure how reliable they are.

  20. Lexi says:

    Man, I agree with your post so much and learned my lessons the hard way. It took me a while to learn that I brought value and to stick up for myself. In my experience, the best to time to establish you value yourself is when you come in– it's much harder to do later. In fact, I had to leave a couple of employers to move up the ladder and get more money. Each time I've left a job, I've been replaced by 2-3 people. Office budgets can be tough, but I once negotiated just a few thousand more when getting in just because I spoke up (we all know how low starting salaries are!) which ended up making a $400 a month difference. In a recent salary negotiation, budgets had been frozen and I asked for more money. There is always room to negotiate! A few things on the table included giving me a little bit more now, then the difference at a specific date in addition to a salary review, all at a specific date, and getting more time off and paying for personal development/projects. The point is, they know I value myself and so they value me more. Lastly, having worked on House office budgets, I will say there is always room to negotiate especially at the end of the year. So if they can't pay you everything when you start, negotiate to get it at the end of the year. I was always surprised at how many COS' kept the bonus money for themselves or their friends in the office.

  21. Lexi says:

    KRR, if you can get your hands on salary surveys for your geographical area, they will tell you a lot. You can also keep an eye on job announcements that list salaries (common in the nonprofit sector) and to network in your field to stay on top of pay trends. I haven't had much luck with the glass door-type sites because they tend to be too general for my needs.

  22. Manager says:

    What if the other candidate who vacated the position had other credentials that the promoted staffer didn't – a graduate degree, for example? I would expect there to be a difference in starting salary for the same responsibilities. The promoted staffer may need more handholding or oversight than the previous staffer did, and as a result, is compensated less. I certainly take into account the training that will be necessary in a starting salary. A first timer in a position is not at the same place as someone who has been in the position for a year or two and shouldn't be paid as much.

    Clearly I don't know the specifics of this instance but as a manager who has hired many individuals, these are the things that I take into consideration.

  23. Maddie says:

    I would only caution that when using Legistorm there is no way to discern a bonus from a salary. My LC salary looked $3000 higher than it was on Legistorm because I received an end of the year bonus.

  24. Belle says:

    Maddie: I just don't look at the year end numbers. I always look at the 3rd quarter or the 1st quarter.

  25. Anne says:

    This is so important!!! I'm a mid-level staffer who can look back on my earlier years and cringe over stuff like this, and I see the younger staffers in my office making the same mistakes. My mantra, when negotiating and advising them is if you don't value your work no one else will, either. YOU have to be your first and best advocate. And it usually works. If it doesn't, you do have to be prepared to advocate for yourself by finding a new gig– no easy task, I know.

    I love these pieces you write about women in the workplace. The straightforward, face-your-fear approach is helpful and correct. I just wish I could make sure all Hill women were reading them.

  26. Carolyn says:

    This post is SO helpful. I would also add another book to the mix, that, no joke, changed my life. It's called: Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide. [You can find it on Amazon here: We don't ask, and we should. Plain and simple. You could dedicate a whole post to this book, Belle! Trust!

    Like most DC young staffers, I moved to DC in my mid-twenties for what I thought was going to be a high-powered, high-paying career. Turns out I was losing out on money I deserved, every single year, just by not asking – or not negotiating – each time I was offered that smidgen of a raise.

    There is so much to take away from learning good negotiating skills – but I've found in each and every job (and promotion within that job) that the best method in salary negotiations [after of course proving yourself worth the job by working your ass off and becoming indispensable!] is to first DO YOUR RESEARCH on what the job is worth, and then in the actual negotiation itself, to PAUSE before saying a word about the offer that's just been made.

    Women – or at least I know, myself, in this situation – are so eager to just jump on any promotion or salary boost that we immediately start talking reaaaallyreallllllyquickly about “that'sgreatandI'dlovetheopportunitytodomoreandthankyousomuch” … Ladies! It's not an OPPORTUNITY. It's what you are WORTH!

    When a salary is offered, pause, do not say one word, and then, if it doesn't match the number you have in your head, say that number. Trust me. This works. You can use a line like “I really appreciate the offer, but what I'm looking for is X, based on cost of living and salaries of X, Y, and Z. Is this something you can work to meet?”

    And like you said, Belle – any Boss that doesn't meet you at that point sure isn't going to do you any favors down the road. Do it early and set yourself up to make what you're worth. It pays off in the long run. And it will hurt in the long run, even more, if you don't.

  27. CML says:

    this is a great post!! it is advice that everyone (especially every working female) needs to hear and heed. I recently had a similar situation (promotion within my office) and engaged in a fierce salary negotiation. in the end, I didn't get the full amount I asked for, but I got more than I was offered originally – every bit helps. next time I move position (in this office or otherwise) I will negotiate again – this time even more effectively than the first. it seems to be one of those skills that you develop with practice.

  28. KRR says:

    Thanks Belle and Lexi- great ideas! I think with a little further research I'll be ready to hold my own in my upcoming review and negotiate for the raise I deserve.

  29. Moose says:

    Great article, Belle. Sadly, this is such a usual story on the Hill, especially for females. I let this happen to me once, too. I stuck it out for a few months, juggling both SA and LC (and a couple leg issues!) and then asked for a raise and a move towards full LA, which I was given. But when they suddenly hired in a new, male LA (from the District, no Hill experience) instead of giving me a chance, I finally got it. I was never going to be able to progress in that office. How much of that was due to my hesitancy in asking for fair compensation or just the general culture of the office (or the Hill), I'll never know. But I am much happier, and fairly compensated, now!

    Ladies, we've got to learn to act like men in work situations. Belle, I think all of your readers would benefit from this article on Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, in the New Yorker, which talks at length about this phenomenon and how to overcome.

  30. jen says:

    This is good to know but hard to practive. I agree, though. I was so happy to be employed that I took a low salary, just so I could speed the process along to me being gainfully employed. I'm bookmarking this for future reference after we win reelection 🙂

  31. MJ says:

    I'll accept that, for the most part, women don't ask as often as we should or negotiate with as much authority as we should. However, I think we must also keep in mind (and I'd love to see the issue addressed in a future post!) that the attempts to negotiate still often do not work for female candidates.

    When I left the Hill for federal employment (salaried on the GS scale), I was told I'd be hired at a certain grade level, but was subsequently advised by HR that I would be brought in at the next lower grade level. I was confused by this, as OPM provides clear guidelines regarding qualifications for each grade level. I asked for the level I'd been told I would receive, provided my qualifications, and stated my reasoning. The HR representative replied that unless I accepted the grade she offered, she would discard my application. So I accepted.

    Three months after I began work, two male employees were hired into my new office, with the same education level and number of years of work experience as I had when I was hired. They were brought in at not one, but TWO grade levels above me. At three months on the job, my window to pursue EEO had long since closed.

    I'm not saying we mustn't put forth a full effort toward knowing our worth in the workplace and negotiating accordingly, but we must, in my view, keep in mind that it is not as simple as asking, and that even the best efforts will not necessarily yield a just outcome.

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