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Advocating for Ourselves: How one Team Successfully Asked for and Received a Salary Review

February 1, 2020


As a professional I talk about “difficult topics” such as goals of care and end-of-life planning on a daily basis. However, the topic I often feel most paralyzed by is finances, especially when it comes to self-advocacy. It might be fair to say that just as our society does a poor job talking about death, society could stand to improve conversation around finances, including, but not limited to, compensation.

While no one goes into the field of social work for economic gain, it is reasonable to expect that our job be compensated commiserate to our degree, licensure and experience, especially if it includes specialty certifications. The range that an OSW is paid varies. A number of factors drive this pay range, including the variety of work settings, accreditation for licensure and ongoing changes regarding how social work is utilized in the medical setting. The lack of transparency from employers as well as personal hesitancy to discuss pay among colleagues can lead to underpay for some OSWs.

At the end of 2019 my oncology social work team had a huge win when we were informed by management that a salary review we had requested nearly six months before had been approved. Our team initiated this process when it became apparent that social workers performing similar roles at other institutions in our region were receiving higher wages. Additionally, the annual review for performance and pay raises set in place by our hospital system was not adequate in keeping pace with the cost of living in our geographical region. This was a long process and I hope that sharing the knowledge my team gained along the way will help others who are considering asking for a salary review.

Our Recommendations

First, know who your allies are and network with core leaders. Talk to your immediate supervisor about your request and ask who else you could approach about making this ask known. Often these requests are not up to a single person and will require going through some chain of command, especially in a large hospital system. Realistically, the people who are able to escalate these requests may not be familiar with what an OSW actually does. Approach these people with enthusiasm to educate them about your role and why this request is reasonable and deserved. Over a series of conversations, our supervisor was able to demonstrate to the Human Resources representative the important role OSWs play on the medical team, which in turn influenced the HR representative to become one of our biggest champions.

Second, normalize discussion around potentially uncomfortable topics among colleagues. To make a case for a salary review requires some knowledge about the “market standard,” which in turn requires discussion with other oncology social workers as to what they are paid. In our culture, how money is allocated conveys worth or value. Learning that someone makes more or less than you can have the potential for hurt feelings, resentment or jealously. Keep perspective that these variations in pay are generally not due to anything the peer has done, but a symptom of a business model that encourages secrecy around pay and luck around bargaining during hire. A phrase that became common during our process was, “We are all valuable employees and we deserve to be compensated as such.” Making the messaging about the group rather than the individual was helpful in dismantling some of the anxiety around discussing pay. There is a wealth of information about how pay transparency has multiple benefits, including better pay, increased job satisfaction and reduced workplace discrimination (Ramachandran, 2012; Wong, 2019).

Finally, reach out to your networks for supporting information. For a salary review, it is likely that Human Resources will conduct a review of how other employees in a similar position are compensated. The role of an OSW, however, is specialized and nuanced, and a comparable job may not exist in your hospital system or the pool may be so small that it is not helpful. Use professional networks such as AOSW, the Society of Social Work Leadership in Healthcare or Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network to gather information from colleagues who are doing similar work. Think about how your cost of living compares with other areas of the country and talk to colleagues who live in those areas. Public institutions such as universities are required to make their salaries public and often an online search can access this information (technically, all not-for-profit organizations are required to make salaries public, but these can be hidden away in a variety of ways.)  Assemble this information in an easy-to-present format (i.e., spreadsheet) and share it with all parties involved—supervisors, managers, human resources.

In summary, many of the skills that go into asking for a salary review (or a raise!) are skills familiar to social workers but are being utilized in a different scenario. Talking about money can feel uncomfortable and advocating for ourselves can feel unnatural. Making these asks, however, empower others in our profession to make similar requests. One could say conversations about pay can feel awkward but the potential pay offs are priceless.

References

Ramachandran, G. (2012). Pay transparency. Penn State Law Review, 116(4), 1044–1080. Retrieved from https://www.pennstatelawreview.org/116/4/116 Penn St. L. Rev. 1043.pdf.

Wong, K. (2019). Want to close the pay gap? Pay transparency will help. Retrieved January 10, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/20/smarter-living/pay-wage-gap-salary-secrecy-transparency.html.

About the Author

Danielle McLaughlin, MSW, LICSW

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