my husband’s employer shared my salary information with his coworkers

A reader writes:

When my husband first began his employment, one of the forms he had to complete was a tax withholding form that asked for our household income. I make a good salary – not exorbitant, but one that puts us in the mid-range of the 2013 tax brackets for married couples filing jointly. It is also substantially more than what my husband makes. We are both comfortable with this.

Our concern is about how his employer handled this information. Specifically, we assumed, like most employment information, that it would be processed through HR and then kept confidential. However, this is a small company and they do not have a formal HR department. Instead, the owners handle all of the paperwork. In this case, they expressed surprise at how much I make, and told my husband’s coworkers, who then also expressed surprise/interest to my husband (as in “wow your wife sure makes a lot”). Not only do I feel like this was an invasion of our privacy, but I’m also concerned that they are using this information to avoid giving him a raise. Over the two years he has worked there, they have given him consistently positive feedback and increased responsibility. But when he recently requested a raise, they said they couldn’t afford it. A few days after they told him that, they asked my husband’s coworker if I was still making the same salary. This coworker wouldn’t know my salary from us, but he and my husband are friends and he told my husband the owners were asking, as a heads-up to us.

First, should we have ever shared this information with his employer – could we have refused to complete this form? I have never been asked by my employer for my husband’s salary, even for tax withholding purposes, but at the time we thought it was a legitimate request. Also, short of leaving, is there anything my husband can do at this point to prevent them from using my salary against him?


First, no, there’s no reason your husband’s employer needed that information. Your husband might use that information to calculate the withholdings he wants on his paycheck, and it’s normal to give employees a form to help them figure that out — but that worksheet isn’t intended to be provided back to the employer with the rest of the tax paperwork. It’s just for your own use.

When your husband’s employer saw that information had been turned back in to them, they should have disregarded it. The fact that they not only looked at it but then chose to discuss it with other people is wildly inappropriate.

There’s no way to know for sure if the employer is using this information to avoid giving your husband a raise, but I can see why your husband suspects it. There’s not really anything he can do to stop that from happening, but he could certainly talk to his manager about it.

If he wants to go that route, he could say something like this: “Jane, I’m uncomfortable with you discussing my wife’s salary with me or with anyone else here. That’s not information that you should ever have had, and it’s certainly not something I’m okay with you discussing with others. I certainly hope that it doesn’t factor into your thinking when we discuss my own compensation.”

The thing is, though, that last sentence is a weird one if they didn’t actually think about your salary when denying him a raise. If it never occurred to them to factor that in (and he was denied a raise for the same reasons anyone else might be denied a raise) but he raises the specter of them doing it anyway, it’s going to come off oddly.

So he might be better off handling it the same way he normally would if he were turned down for a raise — which would mean deciding if he’s still willing to do the job at his current salary and looking at other jobs if he’s not.

But either way, this is a real misstep on his employer’s part, and he should take it as a sign that they can’t be trusted to be discreet with other potentially sensitive information in their possession.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

    1. AMG*

      +1. Until they find out otherwise…

      Regardless, this situation is yucky. Sorry you have to deal with this.

      1. Arbynka*

        I agree. This sort of reminded me of the “good ol’ times” back home when only men would get a raise because “they have to take care of a family” But strangely, single men would get a raise while single mothers would not.

        If the employer is not giving a raise because of a wife’s salary (aka they do not need it, she makes enough) that’s just wrong.

        1. Andrea*

          Oh, this still happens even today in some more conservative areas. My husband got glowing evals but other men who had children got big raises, and his boss actually said it was because they had families to support and he didn’t. Ugh.

          1. Elysian*

            My grandpa once used this line to try and convince me that men should be paid more than women: “Men have families to support, they’re the primary breadwinner! A woman’s work doesn’t support the family, it is extra.”
            Love ya, grandpa.

            1. Marigold*

              Then the employer realizes he can get the same work from a woman, for cheaper. And then men aren’t getting hired at all.

            2. kasey*

              …at the risk of being super unpopular, I am not sure this is all that rare even today. My job is, you know, mad money!

              1. Melissa*

                Rare probably isn’t the right word for it, but nowadays there are many, many households led by single women as well as many dual-breadwinner households where the two earners bring in roughly equal amounts of money or the lower-earning partner’s income is actually essential to the running of the household.

                Interestingly, I read a book that suggested that this wasn’t even the case in the 1960s. A lot of people said or assumed that because they were sexist, not because it was actually true. A lot of middle-income households actually really needed the woman’s income to function, but it was socially unacceptable to admit that, so it would be characterized as “pin money” even it it wasn’t. Or it would go towards “womanly” but still necessary household things – like clothes for the children.

          2. louise*

            Sure does still happen! My sister was glad when she and her fiance got married and then again when they had their first child — the Amish-owned company he worked for gave Head of Household raises. Ugh. Not surprisingly, they were not terribly reasonable in other management decisions, so she was *especially* glad when her husband finally just got a new job altogether.

            1. Anonymous*

              And it’s still happening 40 years later which makes it all the more unacceptable.

              10 years ago, I was hired into a job on the same day as a peer of mine. I’m female. He’s male. Our backgrounds were identical and at first, so was our performance. I eventually pulled away and was the “go-to” for the team. Didn’t get many raises, because of “company performance”‘or “the economy”. I took that at face value. After 5 years, I was promoted and my former peer was now a direct report. When it was time for me to do his first review and I pulled his salary and performance review history, I was shocked. He was hired in at 10% higher than me. He received at least 2-3% raise every year. He got a bonus of $15,000 one year when I got nothing. And every single one of his performance reviews were a lower rating than I had earned.

              Inequality is alive and well, my friends.

              1. Sourire*

                I am absolutely not going to argue that inequality is not still a problem (it absolutely is), but in your particular case, I wonder if just as big a factor was his ability to negotiate versus your accepting things at face value. Perhaps he was hired for more and got better raises because he was much more aggressive when it came to talking about money and negotiating his salary and raises.

                That said, (and I believe Alison has mentioned this before), there are larger issues at play in a macro sense, as women tend to be less assertive in general since that is what conforms to the gender role we have been indoctrinated with since birth. When women are more assertive or try to negotiate, they are generally seen in a negative light whereas a male peer would likely be seen in a positive light for the same behaviors.

              2. Melissa*

                Yeah, I’m going to second Sourire – it is inequality, but a more indirect form in which men are socialized to be aggressive and women are socialized to be grateful for what they get and not make waves. Not to mention that bosses are probably socialized to accept salary negotiations differently from men than from women – to see men’s negotiations as standard/normal but women’s negotiations as her being uppity/demanding/”bitchy”. It’s entirely possible that he negotiated his starting salary and then asked for a 2-3% raise every year.

        2. Meredith*

          My father, who has worked in the same mental health position for 30+ years, ran into this a few years ago. He has had one “late night” per week since I was a child – a day that he works from 8-8:00. He then gets a half day the next day. He would prefer to work 8-5 daily, which is what the new staff members get to do. When he pointed this out, it was all, “Well, they have families to support.” Gee, he managed to do it when he had three young kids at home.

        3. Melissa*

          I actually worked at a job one summer in college where lay-offs needed to happen, and the director of the program laid people off not by their actual work ethic and talents but based upon who needed the money more/who had families to take care of (and told us this explicitly). I guess that’s to be expected because it was a church summer camp, but they did it and then were surprised when the teenagers and young adults that they overwhelmingly laid off were pissed. I was especially pissed because I co-led a classroom with this terrible counselor that everyone hated (and was eventually fired later). She was retained because she had two children whereas I, who was acknowledged *by the director* as a good counselor, was let go.

  1. vvondervvoman*

    There needs to be a tag/way to search for the posts with answers that begin with ‘Wow.’ They’re always the best.

  2. Anonymous*

    Watch out for small offices without a formal HR, not to say that offices with a formal HR is a panacea, but those without simply fly by the seat of their pants on these matters. In out office, it’s the Recruiter who is super indiscreet. You’d think she’d know better as she’s the closest thing to an HR rep that we have. Nonetheless, she’s the one everyone says should never be told anything confidential. EVER.
    Anyway, my beef with her is that she works out of a cubicle in the midst of a plethora of cubicles. Her voice carries as no other. No telephone conversation is ever not overheard word-for-word.

    In any event, she has repeated called me from her cubicle to inquire about a recent hire’s background report. She’d clearly identify the person by name and reference the issue we’re trying to resolve: criminal conviction/offense; bankruptcy; etc. ‘So, Tom Tom’s criminal conviction, did he provide the written explanation.’ I’ve been known to hang up on her.

    1. AMG*

      We had one like her. Left all of the HR docs in banking boxes in an empty cube for anyone to peek at. Anything worth saying was worth shouting, and Lord did that woman love to shout over anything, and to anyone.

      Fights with her boyfriend could be heard through her closed office door (heavy, solid wood) even if you were in another office with a closed heavy wooden door.

      1. Robert "Ricotta" Milanesa*

        Good god. Years ago I gave up on getting any work done at work.

        Nowadays anything that needs doing gets done in the evenings at home, and I spend the day at the office browsing the web and other gnat-like attention span activities. It’s nothing but a social club. I can’t carry a single thought for more than 2 minutes without it being pushed out by a neighbor’s 120-db “telephone voice” or being interrupted for my opinion on boobs, national headlines or sports teams. I hate cubicle farms.

  3. Anonymous*

    I think it’s just time to look for another job. It’s clear they don’t want to pay him b/c they think shouldn’t have to. If they are willing to do that, my guess is there are waaaayyyy more internal problems going on within that company.

  4. Judy*

    I did have a manger that would mention “wow, with you working here and your husband working there, you guys must have no money worries. Here’s the 1.5% raise.” But he was not an effective manager in so many ways.

    1. Mystic*

      Yup, this happened once to my boyfriend at his former employer. (Yeah, BOYFRIEND, we weren’t even married… so why should my supposed salary ever be mentioned in a performance review??)

  5. Ann Furthermore*

    I never cease to be amazed at what dunderheads people are. Why would any employer think that it’s OK to discuss salary information about someone who is not even an employee?

    I would be willing to bet that the fact that the OP earns more than her husband is the driving force behind this. Even though it’s quite common now for a woman to earn more than her spouse, some people still have a rather 1950’s sensibility about such things, thinking that the husband should be the main breadwinner. Even if it’s not stated outright, I think that it’s a subconscious sentiment for many people.

    I wonder if the people who shared the OP’s salary did so because they thought it was comical, or somehow think the OP’s husband is a “kept man” because he doesn’t earn as much as his wife, or some other such nonsense.

    I earn a lot more than my husband does, and it’s never been an issue for us. In fact, one day on the radio I heard the DJ’s reading an email from a guy who wrote in for advice because he was feeling emasculated because his wife had gotten a huge promotion, and was now earning much more than he did. She’d also bought a new car, and he was driving her old one. So he was asking for advice on what to do, and if being bothered by it made him a Neanderthal. That night I asked my husband if it bothered him that I made more than he did, and he said, “F*&# no! I think it’s awesome!!’ I figured he didn’t care, but we’d never talked about it specifically so I’d just wanted to make sure.

    Unfortunately, this bell cannot be un-rung. I think Alison is right in addressing the issue of sharing the salary as being inappropriate, but to inquire about whether this is the driving force behind not being given a raise should be left alone. It would come off as strange, and somewhat paranoid, if it weren’t true — although based on the behavior of the employer it’s a reasonable conclusion to draw.

    The OP didn’t state if others have gotten raises while her husband has not. If they have, then that should be addressed, but in the context of job performance. If others have had reviews similar to his and have been given raises while he has not, then that should be part of the conversation too.

    1. Ann Furthermore*

      *If others have been given reviews with ratings lower than his, and have been given raises while he has not, then that should be part of the conversation too.

      I shouldn’t watch TV and type at the same time.

      1. KJR*

        My husband would love it if I made more money than he does…because it would mean we had more money!!

        1. Mike C.*

          Seriously, I had and would have no problem with my wife making more than me. It all goes into the same account.

        2. Kate*

          That’s what we say all the time. I’ve never made more money but YAY! more money for vacation and fun.

        3. Jake*

          I’d kill for my wife to out-earn me, which is a real possibility if we move to a market that values her occupation above the national average and values mine at below national average.

          Even if it worked out to us making the same total amount, it would be a huge boost to her confidence because she cares way more about that kind of thing than I ever will.

        4. Elizabeth West*

          I would love to HAVE a husband who made money–I’m tired of trying to pay everything all alone!

          For me though, I’d feel better if he made more than me, because my income potential is somewhat limited (unless I end up writing something like Harry Potter, which isn’t likely).

      2. Anonymous*

        In a former life, I made more than twice what my husband made. It sure didn’t bother him and he enjoyed the extra money. What would have bothered him is if his employer considered my (former) profession when considering what to pay him.

    2. Mystic*

      Well that’s all the more argument to give her husband a raise… He needs to get caught up to her salary :-)

      1. Judy*

        That actually happened to us a number of years ago. My husband and I were relocating, and both interviewed with a company. He was given an offer, and I was given an offer as a contract engineer, since “they didn’t know what to do with me” as my skills fit in more with a group in another location. I think the HR guy realized I didn’t like that, so I got a call the next night from someone in that other location, for a phone interview. During that interview, I was asked what it would take to get me there, I named a number. The next day the HR guy called and offered me a job for my number, which was $5000 more than my husband was offered (and a good 15% more than what I was making at the old job), then asked for my husband, and offered him the same that I was offered. At the time we were both working as engineers, but my skills were in a branch that tended to have higher salaries.

  6. Steve*

    I would be tempted to say something along the lines of “I think my tax withholdings might be screwed up. Can someone review that with me?” If that form came out during the process, remark “Wow, this is wrong, how did we let that happen?” then ask for the form back. If they say they have to have it, ask them to explain why, and decide from there if you want them to have that info, whether your husband decides it’s time to actively begin the job hunt, or if you feel comfortable giving them an altered figure for your income. (I don’t advocate lying, but a “gross profit income” based on your household expenses – you make $60K, but the cost of you working net that out to $40K, etc., – wouldn’t be too dishonest.)

    1. KJR*

      I kind of like this idea…who cares if you’re lying to them? You don’t owe them the truth. (YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! – sorry, couldn’t help it). Especially if they’re using it to pay the husband less!

      1. Steve*

        The only reason I wouldn’t flat out lie is things tend to come back and bite ya in the butt – but, a “qualified” truth might satisfy whatever need they think they have while allowing the husband to continue working until he finds a more respectable employer.

        (And why do I always think of the MTV awards version recast with the Brady Bunch when I see that movie quote instead of the actual movie?? Ha ha)

  7. HR Competent*

    That is unfortunate. Owner/Operator businesses are often messy little operations. I’ve found the payroll person is often default HR simply because that’s where the personnel folders sit.

    The form OP’s husband completed is page 2 of the w-4 and as she noted it is not necessary for company payroll records.

  8. fposte*

    I’m one of the folks at a workplace where all our salaries are public, and I’m therefore one of the people who tends to shrug when somebody’s salary is shared at the workplace.

    But a spouse’s salary? On purpose? Making repeated reference to it? What possesses these people?

    1. Anonymous*

      Yeah, sharing a spouse’s salary and making repeated references to it is a real problem. Possibly basing an employee’s pay on what his or her spouse makes is a problem. I agree – what are these people thinking???

  9. Mystic*

    So not only do women, on average, tend to earn a lower salary than men (it’s a $20,000 difference in my city) but now our significant others get punished if they are the exception to that trend. Nice.

  10. Confused*

    I find the discussion of the spouse’s salary (any information from tax documents, really) with the co-worker very disturbing. It’s not just about the raise. It shows disregard and a lack of respect for boundaries and personal information. Wow indeed.

  11. Charles*

    Didn’t these people get told not to discuss money/people’s salary. I believe the only time money should be discussed is during interviews, or meeting about salary increases, and only with your manager, or someone you manage. And spouses salary, why?

    These people have no manners in my opinion, these are the sort of people I would invite over for dinner, and serve them a special batch.

    1. Anonymous*

      ” I believe the only time money should be discussed is during interviews, or meeting about salary increases, and only with your manager, or someone you manage.”

      General secrecy about salaries probably helps management – it gives them an edge in information over employees, who don’t know what their peers make.

      1. Charles*

        I work in one of those places where it isn’t discussed, they tell us not to in our contracts, I’m not in the US if you’re wondering how is that so, we only discuss it with our own managers, mine is indiscreet, I’m sure he tells his one and only friend who is our co-worker, what all of us make.

        These types of people like the OP’s manager and coworkers are the types that are the reason for people doing jobs only for the money, they can’t do a comfortable pay job, they have to do something highly paid so they can boast about it.

  12. Kate*

    I ran into something like this at my old company right before I left (one of the reasons I left). Owner gave a coworker a bigger raise than me because “she was a single mom” and I was married with no kids. Thanks, but no thanks. Also maybe don’t say that to the person who does payroll!

  13. Jake*

    I’m surprised stuff like this doesn’t happen more at small companies. I’ve only ever worked for giant employers with 10,000+ employees, but on the local level, it wouldn’t shock me a bit to hear a story like this. People in my office ask me where my wife works all the time. When I tell them she is a nurse at hospital xyz, they instantly know within 3% of what she makes because it is a small town where the hospital employs so many people that everybody knows somebody in a similar position.

    Heck, I’ve seen people talk about how one of our co-workers is “doing just fine” because his wife is a pharmacist, and the discussion got down to actual dollar figures of what they both make.

    I hate these conversations mostly because I grew up with much less money than anybody I work with, so when they complain about money I tend to get annoyed at their lack of perspective, and I don’t participate in them. However, I’m shocked that people are shocked by the fact that people would gossip about this information.

    Perhaps peoples’ expectations for professionalism and consideration far outweigh my own.

  14. Cupcake1*

    Along these same lines – is it ever okay for a potential employer to ask for a copy of your family’s budget? Just curious if this has happened to anyone else.

    1. Laura*

      I think Dave Ramsey makes his potential employees do this, and I can see where at his organization that’s part of the culture, but it seems really creepy to me.

  15. OP*

    Thanks to Alison for posting and answering my question, and thanks to everyone else for all of the feedback. Once we found out this information had been shared, we realized my husband would need to keep things very close to the vest from then on. That said, I do appreciate the clarification on whether this was information they should have had in the first place. It’s not clear if they knew they shouldn’t have had it, or if they requested it unknowingly in the absence of an informed HR team. Either way, it seems like common sense that they shouldn’t have shared this information broadly and repeatedly with my husband’s co-workers. It is good to know that in the future we would be within our rights to not provide this information if asked.
    As far as looking for another job, this is likely where things are headed for my husband. He likes what he does, and gets along with his co-workers, but it is clear that the owners do not respect their employees (there are many other incidences that I won’t go into here, but suffice to say they treat employees as personal servants, and think screaming is an appropriate form of regular communication).

  16. josh*

    Ah, the fun of working in small companies….I can tell you some great HR stories….but not in the comment section of a blog ;)

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