No one likes talking about salaries, but sometimes it just slips out. What happens if you catch wind that you’re getting paid less than your co-workers?
Imagine that one day you walk into work and you overhear a conversation in the bathroom about year-end bonuses. Or you walk by a photocopier machine and you see a salary spreadsheet listing your entire department’s compensation figures. Maybe your discovery is by direct disclosure—a colleague confides in you about what they’re earning and asks you to share what you get paid.
However you discover you are paid unequally, the result is usually the same: mild shock, disbelief and then confusion about what to do. If you are unhappy with what you discover and think you deserve more money, what should you do?
1. Take a deep breath and get some perspective.
There are many reasons that pay differentials arise at work. People may negotiate different starting salaries or come into a role with different backgrounds and educational credentials. Often pay differences that start off small become larger and more entrenched over time. As economists like to say: “Wages are sticky.” In other words, it’s far easier to increase someone’s salary—even nominally—than to adjust someone else’s salary in the negative direction.
Advocating on behalf of others in the name of overall fairness can be a delicate task, but it may also reflect well on you as a concerned corporate citizen.
2. Check your sources (and pick your battles).
Is it just a rumor, or do you have objective evidence? "Objective" means that you'd feel comfortable sharing that information if you were to confront your manager or HR department. Even if your source is good, it may be just as effective—and less emotionally charged—to try to negotiate a raise than accuse your employer of unequal pay practices.
When you go to negotiate, you can also choose to anchor your case for a raise with data from publicly available sources such as Glassdoor, Payscale, Fairygodboss’ salary database and Career Contessa’s Salary Project. This will help you get to the same end-goal without having to divulge sensitive information that your colleagues have confided in you, for example.
3. Talk to the right person.
If your issue with unequal pay doesn't have to do with your own income but rather that of a team member or other colleagues, you may want to raise your concerns with a member of the HR team or the appropriate manager. Advocating on behalf of others in the name of overall fairness can be a delicate task, but it may also reflect well on you as a concerned corporate citizen.
4. When all else fails…
There are some radical approaches to transparency out there. At a few companies (such as Buffer), all salary information is publicly available. If your employer is one of these rare firms, raising your hand to highlight pay inequities is probably the point and goal of publishing pay information broadly in the first place, so you should feel pretty comfortable taking a stand. At companies where this is not the norm, some employees have taken it upon themselves to expose unfair compensation practices. Leading this effort may not endear you to your supervisors or company management, but there are ways to do this anonymously and cheaply (Google Forms, anyone?).
5. And if you’re part of the problem?
Finally, if you’re a manager and trying to re-align the pay of your direct reports to match their contributions at work, you should remember that one-time bonuses can be a good way to adjust historical pay inequities without having to restructure all pay differentials that have built up over time, in one financial year. For example, Salesforce recently implemented a $3 million correction for it’s female staff once it completed an audit that revealed men and women weren’t being paid equally.
Salary and compensation remain culturally taboo topics, even though pay is the primary reason many of us work. However, pay inequality at work can corrode company culture. Therefore, it can be a very worthwhile endeavor to raise—and solve—pay issues. Just keep in mind that, in order to be effective, you may have strategize carefully and communicate delicately.
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