5 Career Mistakes That Keep You Underpaid

Ryan Ong



The average employee has two burning questions: Will I spend the rest of my life doing this job, and is that my face on the poster for “Stop Poverty”? Join the club. Singapore’s cost of living is starting to make death look like an affordable alternative. In this article, I talk to an expert about our pay (or lack thereof). Here are the five common ways that Singaporeans hold themselves back:


1. Not Being Outspoken

If your schooling was like mine, teachers spent half the day just getting you to shut up. By the time you graduate, the habit’s set in stone: Sit at your desk and keep quiet.

But Singapore’s corporate cultures increasingly favour extroverts. Outspoken employees are perceived as smarter, and having more initiative or potential.

None of that is necessarily true. There are plenty of confident idiots and quiet geniuses. But while you may pride yourself on being the latter, it doesn’t pay. The quiet genius gets overlooked for promotions, pay raises, and sometimes respect.


Business Presentation, woman holding a walking stick
Whoever has the stick may talk; any others will get beaten with it. We clear?


During a career seminar in ’07, I raised several examples where quiet employees could have made a difference. NASA’s Challenger disaster, for example, could have been averted; if only they’d listened to the quiet engineer. The speaker retorted by saying: “We can’t hear those good ideas if you don’t speak up.”


If you’re quiet by nature, or don’t speak well, that has to change. You don’t need to outdo Martin Luther King on a podium; just be able to make presentations and assert yourself. Try courses at the British Council, or literacy programmes from the WSQ (Workforce Skills Qualifications).


2. Not Writing Well


I needed a picture of bad writing. Here you go.


You don’t need to write Singapore’s answer to War & Peace. But you do need to write proposals and reports well. If you can’t, your employer might value you less than your peers.

HR Consultant Angeline Seah says:

Writing skills affect productivity. A poorly worded e-mail can stall workflow, cost money, or unintentionally offend others. Most companies require employees at the management level to be able to write clearly, and in a concise manner.

Writing skills are also important when responding to customers. Some jobs require you to contact customers via e-mail, or provide instructions and clarifications on products. It’s a part of sales.”

If you can’t write well, Angeline suggests business writing classes. The British Council, along with many private schools, offer these. However, she adds that:

You should check if your employer has such programs in place, before paying for your own.”


3. Not Knowing What You’re Worth


Fireworks going off on a barge
‘Course we value you. That’s why we’re putting you in charge of our experimental fireworks department.


If you haven’t done so already, head to Payscale and see if your salary’s decent. Aim to be in the 60th percentile at least. Anything less, and there’s a good chance you can find a higher paying job elsewhere.

Alternatively, you can negotiate for more pay and…what’s that sucking sound? Oh, it’s the sound of your tongue retreating all the way up your skull. I forget; Singaporeans hate the sound of their voice. Listen to Angeline for a second:

Amongst Asian employees, it’s quite typical for us to underrate our worth. A lot of us think that, if we go and ask for a raise, we are ‘being too much’. And the boss will fire us on the spot.

This is unlikely, since you’re not going to shout and demand more pay. If you negotiate reasonably, the worst is you get a ‘no’. And I think many people are surprised by how much leverage they have. After all, you were hired for your skills and expertise. If they could have done without you, you wouldn’t be working there.”

I described some pay negotiating tricks in my other article.


4. You’re Not “Hands-On” Enough


Two people looking at a plan, puzzled
Our boss is like a CSI; he spends all day looking for a clue.


This is a common criticism directed at supervisors and junior managers. Signs that you’re not hands-on enough include:

  • Subordinates ask you for your e-mail or phone number months after you start work
  • Your instructions are always misinterpreted
  • You don’t notice procedures have changed until days later

Angeline says this is a major hindrance to pay and bonuses:

If you don’t roll up your sleeves every now and then, it’s hard to take credit. When the department has a success, you will be afraid of the recognition, because your subordinates will grumble that you had nothing to do with it. Even your boss will worry about giving you a big bonus or pay raise.”

I’d add that being outspoken is a bad idea if you aren’t hands-on. You won’t look smart then, you’ll just look like a jerk.


5. You’re too Loyal


On a sinking ship, looking out
The important thing is to be forward looking. We’ll have better sales and raises next year.


In a second, I’ll be dodging the crap that gets thrown at me. But I’ll say it anyway: When your company is clearly going nowhere, forget loyalty. Accept that you may have to move where the money is.

If your company’s got crap products, then it doesn’t matter how hard you try. Take mortgage bankers and fund managers for instance: When their bank’s products are bad, they don’t stick around and “try harder”. They pack up and leave. And they hop between banks like fleas on a mongrel’s back.

Angeline adds that:

If you are in a small company, you may not get appropriate compensation. In this case, it’s like an investment. Are you willing to invest your time, and the pay you could get, in exchange for making the company succeed?

And how long are you going to give the company? Past a certain point, you may have to say ‘that’s it, I will never make more working here, my only solution is to go.’ Don’t sink with the company.”

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Image Credits:
401(K) 2012Imagine Cup, orphanjones, Shiny Things, Srisri Navin, Chris Friese

What are the reasons you’re underpaid? Comment and let us know!

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Ryan Ong

I was a freelance writer for over a decade, and covered topics from music to super-contagious foot diseases. I took this job because I believe financial news should be accessible and fun to read. Also, because the assignments don't involve shouting teenagers and debilitating plagues.