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What does it really mean when companies say ‘pay is competitive’ in job listings?

If you’ve been looking for a job for a long time, you’re bound to come across the phrase “salary is competitive.”

This vaguely promising but subjective line appeared in more than 500 job listings on LinkedIn in the US this week — retail positions in particular — but it doesn’t ultimately attribute companies to any particular pay level.

“Saying that ‘pay is competitive’ doesn’t really add much to the job description, but companies often throw it out there because it sounds cool. Who doesn’t want a competitive salary?” said Tracy Cote, chief public officer of StockX, an online marketplace. “Most companies think they are paying competitively, whether they are or not.”

“The salary is competitive” is meant to indicate great pay, but it is also a warning sign.

“Salary is competitive”—as with its cousin, “wage commensurate with experience”—is not only a subjective phrase, but it can also be a potential red flag for how a company views compensation and labor.

The belief that you shouldn’t share salary information in job postings is part of an “old school” approach that many employers follow, said Danny Speros, vice president of people at software company Zenefits. “They may feel that it limits their negotiating power in the compensation discussion, which is a bad reason to do so. I think you should pay people fairly for their work.”

Speros said he has used the phrase “pay is competitive” in job listings in the past, but his thinking has evolved. “Ten years ago, it was a very common phrase,” he said. “At this point, I don’t use that phrase. I think it’s understood that pay has to be competitive.”

“Every employer has an idea of ​​what they can or will pay for a role, so why not let candidates know in advance as long as the goal isn’t to pay people less than they’re worth?”

-Lauren Ruffin, Fractured Atlas

Lauren Ruffin, the company’s chief external relations officer, said at Fractured Atlas, a non-profit technology company that provides equipment and services for artists, taking the pay to the job “to save us and the candidates time and guesswork”. The list is posted. He said that Fractured Atlas believes that a candidate should have an understanding of salary before doing any work in the interview process, such as a writing sample or case study response.

“‘Pay is competitive’ sounds like a smokescreen. Is it competitive for the industry? For the sector?” Ruffin said. “Every employer has an idea of ​​what they can or will pay for a role, so why not let candidates know in advance as long as the goal isn’t to pay people less than they’re worth?”

While it is still not common, transparency about salary in job listings is now required by law in a state. A state law went into effect in Colorado this year that required employers to list salary ranges for job roles for state residents, even when remote. If companies fail to disclose this in their job openings, they could face fines of between $500 and $10,000 per violation.

But again, not every company wants to share salary information in advance of job listings. In Colorado, some employers are taking out job openings on purpose to get state residents around the requirement.

Here’s a job tip: If you’re a candidate who sees “pay is competitive” on a job listing, you should wait until the end of your first real interview with the hiring manager to bring it up, rather than so much. To hurry, said Phoebe Gavin, a career coach who specializes in supporting early- and mid-career professionals. TeaHats off, your curiosity about compensation is just one piece of information you’ve provided, and you won’t leave the interviewer with the impression that pay is what you care about.

You can simply ask, “Would you be willing to share the budget for this role? I want to make sure we are on the same page with compensation expectations,” Gavin said.

When the job market is hot, “the salary is competitive” doesn’t cut it.

Speros said companies typically calculate whether their salaries are really competitive in a particular industry through Radford’s data and analytics platform and compensation services like PayScale.

With a huge number of recruiters right now, the competition for talent is heating up. Speros said he expects Zenefits to offer salary ranges in the job listing for all of his open roles in the coming year. “There is a lot of competition for talent out there right now. We’re at a point — and companies that don’t are at a point — where it’s just spinning.

“The past year has helped people re-prioritize what they expect from employers and how they hold workplaces accountable,” Ruffin said. “Employees want transparency, decency and a little sense that while the workplace isn’t about creating an ‘office family,’ they do have some of their best interests in mind by their employers. The job description is often the first sign, so candidates can give it a high level.”

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