How to Choose a Salary Survey

Note: The Compensation Tool doesn’t publish a salary survey nor do we receive any commissions or incentives for recommending salary surveys.

Salary surveys are at the heart of a healthy compensation structure program and knowing how to choose a salary survey is key. With so many options, finding the right salary survey can be difficult. In addition to our list of recommended salary surveys, this article outlines some points to consider when choosing a salary survey.

Validate the Methodology

At some point your business partners are going to question the underlying data behind a salary survey. Understanding the methodology behind a salary survey will ensure your confidence in the survey, which will translate to business partners that are more confident as well. Choosing a salary survey that has a sound methodology and audit process should be a critical consideration. Most salary surveys publish their approach in either the beginning, or the end of a survey. Surveys that don’t publish their methodology should be treated with skepticism.


Salary surveys represent a sample of the labor market, and no two compensation surveys will contain identical participants. Even in many of the most popular and trusted surveys, the salary data for common jobs (e.g. – Accountants) may vary since the participants are not identical across surveys. When considering a salary survey for purchase, always ask the survey provider for the list of participants. Using the participant, some items to confirm are:

  • The participants are relevant to your organization
  • A healthy number of participants exist within the data set
  • Survey participants consist of companies that you compete for talent with

Jobs Included

Without question, having survey jobs that align to your Organization is critical. if your organization is growing, knowing what jobs might be added to your internal job list is advantageous. Most salary surveys will publish a list of their survey jobs that you can review prior to participation or purchase. Where possible, review a sample job description to ensure the language finds a balance between being broad enough to cover many organizations, yet specific enough to meet your needs. Well refined job descriptions can significantly improve your ability to get buy-in from your stakeholders.

How Does the Job Leveling Align to Your Other Surveys

An often overlooked consideration for salary surveys is how the leveling aligns to your other salary surveys. Job levels is an important consideration especially if your organization creates market composites with multiple salary surveys. Creating hybrid market composites is easier when your salary surveys all use the same number of job levels.


Industry specific data is a valuable resource to ensure competitive pay and stay aware of industry trends. This data may also result in better buy-in from from your stakeholders. Generally, industry specific salary surveys will have fewer responses, as compared to general industry surveys, so it is important to be mindful of the number of participants. Unless your Organization is facing stiff competition from from companies in the same industry, (see this article) these surveys are a great compliment to General Industry surveys.

Employer Reported vs. Crowd Sourced

Crowd sourced data are not surveys that can be validated, despite the best efforts and marketing campaigns. Often times, crowd sourced is considerably different than the employer reported salary survey data, which has been rigorously screened and reviewed for accuracy. Crowd sourced data may one day be reliable, but until then, most compensation experts don’t trust it, for good reason.

Case Study: We compared market matches for a recent client and found the crowd-sourced market data was 9% lower than employer reported surveys.

Safe Harbor

In 1996, the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission established Safe Harbor and antitrust guidelines. The guidelines specify the following:

  • A third party should conduct or managed the salary survey
  • Data supplied by participants must be older than three months
  • Reported data cuts must include at least five organizations
  • No single data source should represent more than 25% of the data cut
  • Reporting must be aggregated to prevent identification

Most compensation data providers will adhere to Antitrust guidelines, though validating the methodology will ensure that the survey is compliant. Survey companies staffed by “non-comp” people or boutique consulting firms may not be aware of these rules.

Policies and Practices

In addition to compensation data, many salary surveys will include a section on policies and practices. The Policies and Practices section of salary surveys is usually an overlooked gem with a wealth of useful information. While most Organizations choose salary surveys on the points listed above, the policies and practices section can add significant value!

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