IN EARLY 2008, Mika Brzezinski had been cohosting MSNBC’s Morning Joe for almost a year, yet she says that, in terms of the job, she felt “at the bottom of the barrel emotionally.” The team’s presidential-primary coverage had created major buzz, and ratings had soared, but even though she’d been one of the architects of the show’s success, she was still operating under an MSNBC “floater” contract and wasn’t even an official Morning Joe employee. As such, Brzezinski had to lay out her own cash for camera-ready hair, makeup and wardrobe, and other expenses related to her three hours of daily airtime, resulting in near-constant checking-account overdrafts. But most important, her salary was a mere 7 percent of what MSNBC was paying Joe Scarborough, the show’s host. Sure, as the program’s creator, he should earn more than the rest of the team, Brzezinski reasoned, but did the network really think she was that much less valuable? Brzezinski also made less than her fellow cohost, Willie Geist.
While she was hardly poor by many working mothers’ standards, Brze-zinski thought it was only fair that she get a raise. She made several overtures to MSNBC, but when they all failed, she told Scarborough she could no longer work in a position where she felt so grossly undervalued. She didn’t blame her colleagues for being better at negotiating their own compensation, or even her bosses for not giving her what she was worth. “I was the idiot who signed the contract,” she points out. But she was quitting. That set off alarms. Scarborough found a quick and unusual way to reward her financially (more on that later), and Brzezinski had another, much more satisfying sit-down with the network boss, Phil Griffin.
Happy ending? Yes. But resolving her own situation wasn’t enough for Brzezinski. The experience prompted her to start talking to other prominent women—including senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and FDIC chief Sheila Bair—about their salary snafus and successes. The result: Brzezinski’s new book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth. (Speaking of knowing your value, Brzezinski and Scarborough denied rumors, swirling at press time, that they were shopping a new show to other networks.)
A consummate multitasker, Brzezinski spoke to More about her book and her bottom line while out for a run—she was on foot, we were on the phone—near her home in Westchester County, New York.
How did you originally ask for your raise?
I went in apologizing: “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take your time. But I was wondering if . . . ” Which of course is saying, “Please don’t give me a raise.” Then I said, Feel sorry for me: “It costs so much to work here, between hair and makeup and clothes, and I’m just not making enough, and you need to fix all my problems.” Playing the victim didn’t work either, because it’s not your boss’s job to worry about your problems. But feeling grateful and apologizing had been a lifelong [pattern] for me. I think it’s a very girly pattern.
So you tried to negotiate like a man?
I saw how Joe and Phil [Griffin] solved so many problems by being two bulldogs spitting everywhere, slashing their paws at each other and being all manly—then afterward they’d sit down and be like, “Are you going to the game this weekend?” So I went in and said, “F—, Phil, what’s the deal?” F-bombs flying. His eyes widened. We both stood up. I poked his chest. He awkwardly poked mine back, by my shoulder. I could feel him going, “Ew.” He called both Joe and Chris [Licht, Morning Joe’s exec-utive producer] that night and asked if I was crazy. Crazy didn’t work, either.
What finally worked?
Knowing what my value was and being ready to walk.