What It Really Means When Companies Say ‘Pay Is Competitive’ In Job Listings

If you look for a job long enough, you’re bound to run into the phrase “pay is competitive.”

This vaguely promising but subjective line appeared in more than 500 job listings on LinkedIn in the U.S. this week ― retail positions in particular ― but it ultimately doesn’t hold companies accountable to committing to any particular salary level.

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

“Pay is competitive” is meant to signal great salaries, but it’s also a warning sign.

“Pay is competitive” ― along with its cousin, “salary commensurate with experience” ― is not only a subjective phrase, but it can also be a potential red flag about how the company views compensation and labor.

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

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

At Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit technology company that provides tools and services for artists, salaries are posted on job listings to save “us and candidates time and guesswork,” said Lauren Ruffin, the company’s chief external relations officer. She said Fractured Atlas believes that a candidate should have a sense of salary prior to doing any work in the interview process, like a writing sample or case study response. ”‘Pay is competitive’ feels like a bit of a smokescreen. Is it competitive to the industry? To the region?” Ruffin said. “Every employer has a sense of what they can or will pay for a role, so why not tell candidates upfront unless the goal is to pay people less than they’re worth?“

By Christina Moreschi
Christina Moreschi