I realise that as I have recently entered my fifth decade upon this planet, and any semblance of youth that I might have had has now been replaced with curmudgeony and the assumption of other people that I have accumulated wisdom (believe me, I haven't; I have no idea what's going on most of the time, it's just that I know how to make declarative statements); so this means that people now ask me questions in the hope that I have something good to offer. At best the advice that I can dispense is dubious and at worst it is dangerous; you would be ill advised to drink deeply from my font of knowledge.
Nevertheless, I was sent an email at work this week where I was asked a question and the answer which I gave them will be reposted below.
I am applying for an internship at a large company and they want to know what my desired salary is. I don't know what my desired salary is, I just want a job. What salary should I ask for?
Does this sound really creepy or not? What do you think is going on?
(this has been edited for privacy reasons)
My reply is below:
Dear Eleanor¹ (not her real name),
What I think is going on here is that this company is conducting a reverse auction. I think that this company is collecting applications from lots of people and then wants to hire the person who bids the lowest starting salary.
There are various job sites like seek.com where you can compare the salary range for various positions and so if you want to know what you should be paid, you might like to look through those and get an idea of what would be normally acceptable.
I suspect though, that because this has been labeled as an 'internship' that this company would like to pay someone in the position nothing at all, if they can get away with it. If you think that there is a future with them then have a think about it but I would tread carefully. Find out what an employee should expect to be paid in this job. Don't devalue or undermine yourself.
PS: If you want to have a gamble because you want to test the character of the company, then put down $500,000/hr see what sort of reaction that gets. If they do actually have a budget for this position and they genuinely want to pay a salary, then I think that you should be entitled to all of it.
To be fair, I haven't had to look for a job in a long time and so I'm sure that I will find it stressful when I will do again but at least I will not face this dilemma. The truth is that I did come across this tactic of asking what your salary expectation was and I stated more than 50% of what the going rate was. They accused me of demanding too much and I accused them of looking for the lowest bidder and that quite frankly I didn't want to work for them. I didn't take the job, or rather I didn't take the job when they then chased after me and disclosed what they were going to pay - because my suspicions were confirmed. I think that it benefited me not to take a job and not have to include it on a résumé, than take it and be immensely unhappy in it. Every job is going to come with its thorns but being adequately compensated monetarily kind of helps to take the sting out of those thorns (a bit).
What I didn't say in this email to Eleanor because I didn't want to include it in official correspondence but do want to have a rant about it², is that I really hate what modern 'internships' have become. Once upon a time, a firm would employ an intern or apprentice or a trainee because they had a need to employ someone and the idea was that the inter would acquire skills and experience and become more useful. Now it seems that internships are an excuse for increasingly unscrupulous employers to extract free labour out of mostly younger and vulnerable people, by dangling the carrot of hope in front of them but there's actually nothing of substance behind it. It also has the added bonus that while someone is on an internship, they are still within a probationary period and so unfair dismissal laws don't apply to them; especially if they are unpaid internships. Once the firm is done with one intern, they can spit them out and move on to the next one.
The kinds of firms that are likely to offer internships as opposed to traineeships where there is a legal requirement for on the job training and assessment or a traditional apprenticeship which comes with the prospect of a trade certificate at the end, is because an internship is not legally defined at law, there aren't any workplace arrangements which surround them either. When the internship is unpaid, then that comes with the double whammy of not being covered by workplace insurance and conditions regulations is addition to there being no pay. Get injured at work if you're an intern? Don't worry, because there's no salary attached, then the allowable minimum compensation is zero. If you were to calculate the claim then an applicable percentage of zero is still zero.
Because internships are more likely to offer zero salary, then this has the bonus effect for employers of filtering out all of the poor people. If you happen to suffer the burden of work because you need to put food on the table and keep the rent collectors at bay, then you are not very likely to want to apply for an unpaid internship. This has been especially useful for legal firms and the big media companies because it means that they get a better economic class of candidate. If you have the ability to live a comfortable life while living at home with your parents in a middle class existence, then that's the sort of future employee that these firms are looking for. Granted that it will cost you in time and money which you will lay on the altar of capitalism in tribute but if there's a hope of a job at the end, then that's worth it, right?
This is a completely expected step in late stage capitalism; having spat out all the poor people, the beast has no problem with eating the children of the middle and upper classes.
It gets even more blatant in the creative fields because design firms will often demand to see a practical application for a job and will set a task as the application process. The unstated purpose is that they've worked out a convenient method of contracting out work for free, and can get hundreds of prototype briefs at once and just use those. There might not be an actual job behind it all either.
Before you accuse me of being cynical, I already know that I am suspicious of people's intentions. Accuse all you like. I've already been convicted, found guilty and am nor imprisoned in the world. Maybe twenty years ago the myth of the dignity of work was on the surface still being respected but those days are clearly over³. When you combine the effects of capital reasserting itself in the economy with the continuing march to automation, with the desire that was always there, to pay people as little as possible, then of course it stands to reason that the veil has been taken off and we're left with naked capitalism.
It's just that if we are supposed to play the game according to these rules, where you have to name your price up front, then my price just happens to include my dignity and a decent salary. I would be very disinclined to want to work at a firm who asks for salary expectations up front because the character of the firm is already on display and if that's the price, I just don't buy it.
¹Conspicuous by its absence is a lack of a salutation line. This is already a bad start because an email is essentially a letter and as such should be treated with formality and dignity; especially if it is in a business capacity.
²Eleanor was given a link to this rant.
³As if they ever started:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
- Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1776)