January 27, 2021

Why claiming ‘job turf’ could help improve your pay

The next time you find yourself negotiating a promotion or job offer, it might pay to look past the job title and probe deeper into the specific responsibilities that will be yours alone.

That’s the conclusion of a new research paper from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who examined the vexing question of why salaries often differ between people with the same job titles in the same organisation. The results suggest that workers who are able (and willing) to identify and stake claim to niche skills within their job description end up with a slight pay advantage over their peers.

Nathan Wilmers, an assistant professor of work and organisation studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management, examined 13 years’ worth of publicly-available data on the salaries and job descriptions of people employed at more than 5,000 US labour unions – a sector whose stringent reporting requirements yield unusually detailed information on how resources and personnel are deployed.

Employees who managed to stake claim to specific job tasks unique to the organisation typically had a pay advantage
Wilmers found that even within roles with the same job title, employees who managed to stake claim to specific job tasks unique to the organisation typically had an advantage in pay. Workers who possessed these specific skills and responsibilities, which Wilmers referred to as “job turf”, typically earned 5% more than colleagues with the same job description, even when controlling for past experience, education and gender. “What you actually do at work has some bearing on your earnings, even if your job title isn’t changing,” Wilmers says.

Why niche tasks add value

The fact that specialised skills often carry a wage premium has been established since the days of guilds and master tradesmen. But most research looks at the scarcity of a worker’s skills in the context of the job market as a whole, Wilmers says. In fact, within an organisation, it matters less how many people are able to do a particular task outside the company than how many people are able and authorised to do the task within it.

For those seeking better pay, there’s value in seeking out specific chores and responsibilities that an employer prizes – and that nobody else in the organisation does, Wilmers says. In the context of a labour union, for example, this might mean a pay advantage for the sole person on staff tasked with negotiating contracts. In a hospital, it could be a pediatric neurosurgeon who has an advantage over colleagues in general surgery.

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