In the March 27, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks us to focus on the big questions of value and worth.

Question

worthI’ve read your many columns about how to negotiate salary, how much to ask for when applying for a new job, what not to say about my salary history, and about why salary surveys (and websites) aren’t to be relied on. Now I’m doing some introspecting, trying to look at the big picture of my value and what I’m worth in the world. I wish I had started thinking about this 15 years ago.

Do you have any big-picture suggestions about figuring out what I’m worth and about how to increase my value in the world? Know what I mean? Not just salary and money, but value. Thanks.

Nick’s Reply

Anyone can use the search box at the upper right of this page to find articles about “salary,” “pay,” “negotiate,” and other such topics. We’ve discussed all that a lot. I think there’s good advice in the articles that will turn up — and even better advice from readers in the comments of each one.

For example:

Worth: The big picture

But I like your big-picture question. It does indeed demand some introspection and even some chewing of the philosophical fat. It really is a big question: What am I worth?

Maybe even more important, How can I be worth more?

And you’re right — this is something to think about again and again, not just when considering a job offer or negotiating salary. I typed “worth” and “value” in the search box and realized I’ve never tackled those tough topics directly — though I’ve wanted to.

Value: Who says?

I think the big mistake people make is that they try to view their worth, or value, in absolute terms. That is, they think there’s a number — a certain amount of money, or a money range — that they deserve based on their experience, credentials, knowledge, skills and so on. (See Too rich to land a job?) I suppose there’s an argument to be made that we each have some kind of inherent value that employers should pay us for.

But I’ve never bought into that. I think value and worth are in the eye of the beholder. It’s why sales people exist! Their job is to make something they’re selling seem more valuable to you so that you’ll pay more to get it.

When it comes to jobs, it seems employers, the job market, government labor and economic data and — of course — job boards and job-related websites, all want to tell you what you’re worth. They think they can figure it out by interviewing you — then they expect (demand?) that you accept their judgement.

Is your head spinning?

Maybe worse, employers define the value of a job by… defining the job. Then they limit themselves to hiring only someone who fits the job definition rather than someone who can do other, unexpected stuff to make their business more successful! This begs the question, are employers advertising for a bag o’ keywords, or for desired outcomes?

All this can make your head spin. Each issue I brought up above is probably worth (ha-ha) an article and a long discussion (and loads of comments!).

The Cardinal Rules of Worth

So now I’m going to try to do what you asked. To introspect. To focus on the big picture.

Here’s my stab at what worth is and how we can increase it, and maybe it’s too ambitious. But I’m worth more when I’m ambitious…

The Cardinal Rules of Worth

  1. Know who you are and be that. Don’t try to be someone else.
  2. Increase what you are good at. Don’t envy what others can do.
  3. Produce something. Don’t just consume what others make.
  4. Learn the market value of what you have to offer. Don’t settle for less.
  5. Assess your assets regularly. Know your trading power.
  6. Trade some of your assets for what others produce. Always exchange for equal value.
  7. Seek value, not availability. Don’t take what comes along.
  8. Create desires in others. Give others a reason to trade with you.
  9. Invest in the abilities of others. They will make your life bigger.
  10. Earn respect. It will increase your worth.
(c) Nick Corcodilos 2018 | asktheheadhunter.com

I think when we consider big ideas, there really aren’t any answers — just big stuff to think and talk about. And we all know the purpose of this forum is for us all to think and discuss. So I expect everyone will have something to add and something to say.

What is worth? Value? How do we judge and grow our worth in the world? How do we benefit from the worth of others? In what ways can we express our worth (rather than our desired salary!) that will make it relevant to others (and worth paying for)?

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28 Comments
  1. Very thought provoking….
    To number 10, I’d add “and show respect.” It’s a two way street.

    I don’t care how much you know, what you’ve done, nor how much of a “expert” you are there’s always room for an opposing view, a new idea or a way of doing something that deserves to be considered.

    At the pace the world is changing we can’t afford to just do things “the way they’ve always been done” and dismiss something because we didn’t think of it or it’s outside our comfort zone. Always respect another’s opinion or point of view.

    • @JohnBoyNC

      That’s an interesting addition. I like what you have to say.

      I do have a slightly different take on it. I think that everything you said in encompassed in “Earn Respect”. The operative word in the original point is “earn”, as opposed to “demand” or “expect”. One of the ways you “earn” it is to show it as appropriate.

      Great point, either way.

    • Or…”keep learning”. The most impressive people I come across always ask lots of questions.

    • Respect is indeed a two-way transaction.

  2. I am one year retired, but I may not stay retired. Though I’ve often been tempted to put something snarky on my new business card, like “I am that I am”, or, “Another one like me shall not this way come”, I suspect that something a little more “professional” might actually connect me with a truly viable opportunity.

    While I continue to compile and create notes from my 45+ years in manufacturing, healthcare, and distribution, in my deeper unconscious, I’m trying to pull up an articulation of what it actually was that I was doing for all those years that lies outside the typical job description of “necessary” skills.

    Why should a business hire me instead of the other person?

    I’m not that smart, I’m not a people person, I’m not degreed, able to leap tall buildings, run faster than a speeding bullet, or more powerful than a locomotive. And I definitely cannot walk on water. (I can hardly swim.)

    I haven’t quite put it together yet, but Nick’s statement ” . . . rather than someone who can do other, unexpected stuff to make their business more successful!” has definitely put me on the right track.

    And I think that’s why the Vice President of Operations kept me around for thirty years.

    I was the wild card up his sleeve, to be played when too many chips were on the table, and his hand was not as strong as he would have liked.

    He didn’t know WHAT I would do, he was just confident that whatever I did do would be effective, and in the company’s best interest.

    In most cases, that was true. (You can’t win ’em all.)

    Opportunities for improvement, chaos reduction, or quantum leaps come in many different forms, and many variables lie within each brief opportunity.

    I’ll never be able to fully calculate my value to that company in the thirty years that I spent pounding my brains, body and soul to keep the operation viable: too many variables.

    My goal was to put more money in the pockets of my subordinants, and maybe have some fun.

    In the brutally competive market that we served, I was lucky to just keep people working, hold chaos at bay, and reduce pain.

    I like to think that made me valuable.

    • Citizen X
      “Why should a business hire me…?” FULL STOP. “What SPECIFIC business? What is the current challenge threatening its existence? Again, SPECIFICALLY how is your background (which judging from your comments is probably an intriguing narrative) gonna help the outfit you target sustain itself into the future? That’s probably a narrative rich in “value” if you express it in dollars (an accepted way to measure “value”.

  3. Nick’s ideas are good ones. I would add that for long-term career planning you need to survey the marketplace looking for possible avenues for growth. You may be able to improve your value by combining your current competencies with new ones. An obvious example: someone who is a gifted engineer but who is not a good presenter of his/her ideas can markedly improve their value and their career by obtaining presentation skills.

    • Agreed. I think that comes under “Increase your value.”

  4. thought provoking. I think, upon consideration they force oneself to answer the basic question…why should a manager hire me vs others. And help with wrestling yourself to the ground when seeking a change, as to what are your motives and what do you bring to the table. Attaining a reality check.

    There’s nothing more disconcerting when after you’ve put together what you think is your killer resume, highlighting your unique experience, to search a data base of resumes to find you aren’t that unique at all. Then what? An assessment tool like this will help you answer that question, to really understand what you have to offer, and nail down differentiating intangibles.

    The intangibles lie between the lines of those job descriptions that managers think explain a need. And addressing intangibles often make the difference between success & failure, good & mediocre performance, and personal satisfaction and worth.

    This same kind of thinking can be flipped. That is applied to the worth of a job, or more broadly a career. All too often people zero in on compensation when making a change, to find with regret, they left something behind that is difficult on which to place a $ value.

    Life is a trade off. For everything you get, you give up something and vs versa. When you consider making a change what are you trading off for money? What, warts and all, does you current job provide to you? What is it really worth?

    A guy I used to work with said whenever he got an offer, he’d get on a scale in his bathroom that weighed …should I stay or should I go. i.e. he had a worth it scale.

    • I know we discuss finding a job here most of the time, but the Rules imply other possibilities such as, Should I keep working? Should I start my own business? Should I invent something? Should I do something else entirely (like become a ski bum)?

      Sometimes I remind myself that there’s more, but what is it? What do I want it to be?

  5. I’m waiting for the media to address this issue as it relates to finding a job in your 40’s with a wealth of experience under your belt:
    It’s been my observation, from both sides of the negotiation table, that corporate avoids hiring folks in their 40’s because of the healthcare costs of those in this demographic. So it doesn’t matter what they’re worth. Experience at the expense of having to provide healthcare benefits is simply NOT worth it for Corporate America.

    • You are 100% correct. As a woman in her mid 50s, I created my own job (pro photo organizer) after looking for a few years and interviewing a little (few places wanted to talk with me, despite following Nick’s sage advice). Ageism is alive and well, as is sexism. Just yesterday on an editorial video shoot with my husband who is a videographer, I was referred to as a “blonde” by one of the talent’s partners (someone my age!). Sigh. Still, I’m my own boss.
      It would be interesting to see what would happen to us 40+ers if the govt took over healthcare (i.e. Medicare for All) and corporations were not in the business of providing healthcare. I’m sure they’d still find excuses to not hire us.

    • @Ambo: I think it’s much more nefarious a business strategy than saving healthcare dollars. Check this:

      https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/8694/these-industries-are-more-likely-to-screw-you-on-pay

      • This article is BONE CHILLING. I’m a perfect example… I have worked in sales for most of my career. I’ve worked at established companies and small start-ups and have enjoyed the experience of being ‘valued’ (when we’re in launch mode and corporate is trying to motivate us),as well as undervalued once I’ve met and exceeded my quotas, which I have consistently done through out my career. In 2009, during a year end performance review, my sales manager said these words to me: ‘You are the Highest Paid sales representative in the Region’. Hearing the tone of consternation in his voice, I made an educated guess that as a Top Producer I was potentially earning more than my manager (which a good sales manager expects that in order to get good team averages there will be a few folks on your team earning more than they are to make up for the underperforming reps), and for the 1st time in my career I was scared it would cost me my job… which it eventually did when the company laid off 55% of their sales force later that same year. The following year, as sales numbers stagnated, I was invited to interview for my former position but for a significant ($15K) reduction in pay. I was a Top Performer who wasn’t asked back but rather invited to interview for a chance of employment! And you can guess who reached out to me for this generous opportunity… a Recruiter. I do not wish to come across as ungrateful. Had I not been employed already, I would have interviewed for my old job back because I loved that job. And looking back, I probably should’ve interviewed just to gain more experience, but I’m wiser now.

        I’ve been laid off a total of 3 times in my career. After each time, I’ve had to live off of what I had put away for retirement and tap out my 401K. It’s been a vicious cycle of saving $ like crazy (and being told I earn too much money), only to have to watch as my hard earned savings circle the drain. How does this benefit anyone? When did ‘earning too much money’ become a bad thing in this country?

        The more I learn about layoffs and the corporate structure (and having been on the management end of being forced to decide who gets laid off based on ridiculous algorithms), the more it’s clear that Corporate America uses mass layoffs to benefit shareholders and because they’re too lazy to actually Train the few that are underperforming and too chicken to Remove the individuals that shouldn’t be retained. It’s far cheaper in the short run to lay-off with crappy severances than to put any budget towards proper on-boarding, on- going training & development and employee retention. For corporate it’s all about the time value of money. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat across an interviewer and told my success stories of how I was able to retain underperforming reps who later went on to exceed expectations only to be met with a blank stare by the hiring manager… I can’t even wrap my head around what they value or how to present myself as someone they would value!!

        If corporate doesn’t begin to hire and re-hire this generation of highly trained individuals (while CEO’s keep crying that they can’t find talent), it’s going to cost our society A LOT of money once this generation becomes a burden on the system.

        Again I ask this… when is the Media going to catch on to this crisis?

  6. First, I just want to say amen to this column. Brilliantly written, and speaks to the deeper issues many people have around work.

    I will also add that the question “what are you making now?” has always been invasive, whether as a candidate or a recruiter. This idea of worth, combined with the legislative trend toward outlawing the question, should be helpful in reversing a really unhealthy relationship between candidate and hiring company.

  7. @Ambo

    It is not the over 40 crowd that are the only ones who have health issues, it is the under 40 crowd too. I notice more overweight and morbidly obese under 40 than ever before. And, they will certainly drive up the health care costs for any company.

    I think employers do not want to pay for the experience the over 40 crowd brings to the table. I’ve looked at project manager jobs in the Midwest where I live, and there are many companies offering under market value for those positions. I interviewed at one company last year that was paying a range of $45-60K for a project manager position, which is about $12-15K less than the average for the area at the high end of their range at $60K. They want good and they want it cheap. They cannot have both. And, if they do find someone to do the job that cheaply, that person will get some experience and then move to another company that will pay what the position is worth. By the way, the company is still recruiting for PM positions and they appear to be having a hard time filling them. The same job has been posted for about 3 months.

    • When a position has been posted for that long (3 months), it is more than likely a fake position. The company is recruiting and gathering a pool of candidates. This shows the Job Market that they’re hiring (when they have no intention to fill the role) and edges out recruiters since they don’t have to pay the recruiter a fee.

  8. The idea of what I’m worth in the marketplace is truly worth self-reflection. Having said that, whatever conclusion I can derive is moot unless I can get HR to agree. A resume just doesn’t nor can it truly convey to a potential employer the many and varied “soft skills” and integrity I bring to every job. An interview may offer a glimpse into my other talents and personality traits that lend a unique perspective to performing a job, but counting on this happening is not realistic.

    So to answer your question “…are employers advertising for a bag o’ keywords, or for desired outcomes?”

    Yes, most definitely a bag of keywords! It’s been my experience that few recruiters/HR people (anyone involved in the hiring process) are even aware of the intangibles.

    Therein lies the eternal problem for job-hunting and working in general — there’s always someone else through whose eyes/perceptions/stereotypes/prejudices/criteria etc., we are being “valued.” No matter your credentials, work history, and solid recommendations, it only takes one person to either align their determination of your “value” with yours, or not. If not, you’re either not granted an interview, the job, are passed over for promotion, and/or fired. I think it’s that simple. None of this is personal.

    “Value” in the workplace is too tenuous to be determined; I just hold true to my own ideals and estimation of my performance. To thine self be true.

    • I think the message to employers is, “You dummies. You have allowed hiring to be mediated by dopes in your HR dept who really think they know jack about the work that needs to be done… and they’re rejecting your best candidates… START DOING YOUR OWN HIRING!”

      But that won’t happen. Managers who hire? That ship has sailed. Hiring is no longer a management job. And employers pay for it without knowing it.

  9. The other huge obstacle is overcoming long term unemployment. I had three recruiters in one week tell me that after 6 months I was virtually ‘unemployable’. Your worth plummets exponentially at 7 months. I’ve been in my industry for almost 20 years and I have a large network, (not to mention a strong skill set), so I got through a good bit of red tape when involved in the interview process… but somehow, I’d find myself being interviewed by someone totally inexperienced in what my job title requires and I have a strong suspicion I was reduced to an algorithm. The woman over 40 with too much experience algorithm.

    • You’re not unemployable. You’re just not an easy placement. Recruiters go for the low-hanging fruit. So tell them to F off. The time you save by not wasting it on those bozos will pay off if you go directly to managers who need you.

  10. Worth and value are not interchangeable, they are distinctly different in definition. WORTH: monetary assessment determined by either the seller or the buyer of a product/service that leads to a purchase. VALUE: entirely determined by the end user of a product/service based on buyer’s emotional reaction to use of the product/service.
    In the marketplace worth is constantly fluid based on new product introduction, innovation, and competitive features. Value is the cornerstone inherit to all consumers. Their emotional satisfaction is based on benefits e.g. easy, flavorful, convenient. Benefits dictate worth.
    In job hunting the applicant too often does not put the proper perspective on the process. The distinctive edge the applicant brings to the position determines the baseline worth established by the prospective employer. Experience in today’s marketplace is not what it was in the past due to the rapidity of technological change within industry. As such an employee must convey the ability to be flexible, multi-functional, adaptable to rise above the drone conception of the prospective employer. It is a common statement among employers that an applicant or soon-to-be-fired employee has one year of experience and X number of years of re-runs. As such their determined worth is low.
    When an employee, through demonstrated skills, performs above the expectations established by the employer; that employee’s value increases.
    This is the process, plain and simple. The variables include the mindset of the prospective employer and the applicant. If the employer is a nimrod, mental midget, he/she cannot separate or determine true worth or value. As such there is a continual revolving door of employees and loss of profitability and market-share. If the employee has limited skills, is not perceptive to market factors, cannot or refuses to engage in critical thinking, they deserve to be fired and replaced.
    When researching prospective employers, the applicant MUST determine how a prospective employer determines worth and value. This will go a long way in the decision of ultimately submitting an application.
    In the end, it’s the marketplace that is the final determiner of worth and value because the consumer’s pocketbook reveals what is needed for them to purchase.
    Determining one’s worth and value enables for more power and control in negotiating for a prime position. Lower valued positions have little wiggle room for negotiation. It’s a cattle call based on the emotions of the prospective employer.

  11. I think “value” also depends on the industry. For instance, in some industries, you might be the best, but if the employer thinks they can get someone younger, cheaper, and/or more desperate, they’ll can you in a New York minute to save a buck.

    In others, like book writing, the better you do, the better your client does, and it is silly to replace JRR Tolkien with JK Rowling just because the Potter books sell slightly better, when you could sell them BOTH and make even more money. Hence, the cutthroat competitiveness is to GETnoticed, not to STAY noticed (like the previous example, where you have to fight your way to the top to get noticed but could still be thrown out on a whim to save a buck because you’re viewed as an expense.)

    And, usually taking the latter route would be riskier as companies would need to take a risk on you to publish your works, you usually had to compete more than the former. However, with “training” now being viewed as a four letter word in the former, the entry competitiveness gap between the two is narrowing, making the latter now more viable.

    Indeed, as far as value is concerned, I see two possible futures:

    1.) Labor will not be switching to the latter and so will see their “value” decrease in an increasingly cutthroat race to the bottom.

    2.) Labor will switch to the latter category and now be closer to an equal with the management.

  12. SO I’ve done a couple of interviews recently and they follow the same pattern of reviewing the resume, why are you looking and finally what are your $ expectations. So when I give a range that is less than I currently earn but at the top quartile of my profession & region, I get lowballed by 20-40k. The last HR person said “budget” but I had done my research and I know what I am worth.
    They had recently purchased a business and were looking to have a site controller at 60k annual in an area with a 5% unemployment rate. Additionally they paid a 50% premium(which the published in a press release) over net assets, but wanted to what hire talent on the cheap now? Makes no sense.
    So I think going forward I am going to get the targeted hiring range and quit wasting my time.
    Would like to hear peoples thoughts on how best to say that! Thanks and have an awesome day!

  13. I understand the context of the question, but it can’t be said enough: you, as a person, are not measured by your value or worth to a company. Sometimes hard to internalize, especially for those under/un-employed for longer stretches. Similarly, your value and worth numerically to a company is never more than an estimate, with offered compensation necessarily some fraction of that estimate. All this philosophy doesn’t put food on the table, though, so I’ll offer some concrete suggestions.
    1. Be an amazing coworker. You’ll enjoy it more.
    2. Determine what level of salary would allow you to not worry about money on a routine basis. This is a good gauge for how you value your time.
    3. Heed your gut. If it doesn’t feel right FOR YOU, you’re probably right.
    4. To improve your value to a company, ensure you are diligent in pursuing companies that match 1, 2, and 3.

  14. The older we get and the more we learn (often the hard way) about how our worth is perceived by those in power, the more important it is to shore up and maintain our own sense of self worth, both professionally and personally. Life is always going to get in the way of the best laid plans, trust me – the universe has a freaky sense of humor sometimes.

    Nick, I’ve known you for about 20 years now; you’ve encouraged me and given me plenty of brain food, all in the service of helping me to help myself, and I do appreciate you very much.

    One other person, a very successful female attorney who was a longtime client, taught me even more about valuing myself and my services: she insisted I charge her more because what I provided was worth it to her. I never forgot, and we’re still friends.

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