my company wants to stop me from discussing my salary with coworkers

A reader writes:

I work at a retail job with mostly hourly positions and low wages. This is more or less my first “real job.” On the day I received my first paycheck, I had a question related to tax exemptions, so I asked a coworker, showing her my pay stub. Seeing this, my manager told me to put it away and that it was company policy not to share pay information. I knew this was illegal, but I didn’t make a fuss (I’m transgender and trying to get people to use my correct pronouns is enough of a hassle, so I didn’t want to be seen as a troublemaker).

A few weeks ago, another coworker had a similar question, so I showed him my paycheck. Predictably, my manager stopped me. This time, I told her that preventing employees from sharing their pay information was against the law. She expressed disbelief (“I don’t think this company is in the habit of making policies that are against the law”) but told me she’d talk with her higher-ups and get back to me.

The next morning, she called me and told me “you’re right, it’s illegal for us to do anything about you sharing your pay information, but we still highly discourage it because it can cause hard feelings and workplace drama.”

My problem is that I doubt anyone else (besides me, my manager, and the other coworker involved) realizes that we have a right to share our pay information. My impression is that pay is pretty crappy all around, and no one feels like we have any power to negotiate our wages. I also wonder if there’s some pay discrimination going on (weirdly, the boss seems to be biased against male employees).

I’m pretty willing to take some flack from my managers over this, since I’m leaving in a month. But I have no idea how to go about it. There isn’t really much time at all to socialize with coworkers since there’s so much work to be done (and usually only two or three employees covering the whole store at any given time). Should I put up a poster? Print out some fact sheets? Really really awkwardly try to have a one-on-one conversation with each of my co-workers?

You can do any or all of those, depending on what you’re most comfortable with. However, be aware that the more overtly “organizing” ones (putting up posters and handing out factsheets) are more likely to have repercussions on your relationship with your manager and employer. It’s illegal for them to retaliate against you for exercising your legally protected right to discuss wages and working conditions with your coworkers, but retaliation can be subtle and difficult to prove. It can be the difference between a reference that’s “fine” and one that’s glowing. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go that route — if no one were willing to take those sorts of risks, we’d have far fewer rights — but you should be aware of that possibility before you take it on.

If you want to go the more cautious route, I’d talk one-on-one with your coworkers and let them know their right to share pay information. But I definitely don’t want to discourage you from speaking out more broadly if you’re up for doing that.

It’s interesting how little known this fairly significant right is, so here’s some more information for people who didn’t even know this was a thing:

The National Labor Relations Act gives all employees the right to “engage in concerted activities,” which includes the right to discuss your wages and working conditions with each other. Employers aren’t allowed to prohibit you from discussing your salary, and any attempts to do so violate the NLRA. (People often think of the NLRA as being about unions, but these provisions apply whether you’re unionized or not.)

There are some exceptions to this though:

* The protection only applies to non-supervisory employees.

* It only applies to discussions with coworkers. You can still be prohibited from discussing your salary outside your organization. (This may make more sense when you consider that the point of the law is to protect your ability to organize with coworkers for better wages/working conditions. But employers are still permitted to consider their salary structure a trade secret and prohibit being released outside the company, to competitors, etc.)

* The law doesn’t require employers to allow wage discussions during times that you’re supposed to be working. However, singling out pay discussions for prohibition while allowing other non-work-related conversations wouldn’t fly. So if they prohibit you from socializing/chit-chatting/talking about TV at work, then they can include this too. But they can’t say, “You can talk about your kids and what you did this weekend but not what you’re paid.” If they allow non-work-related conversation on the job, they have to allow this.

* Your employer can limit your conversation about pay in front of customers.

* You wouldn’t be protected by the law if you obtained information about other employees’ pay through files known to be off-limits to you or because your job gives you access to other people’s salary records, or if you get others to break access restrictions and give you confidential information. So your coworker can tell you how much she makes, but getting the bookkeeper to tell you how much a coworker is making wouldn’t be protected by the law.

* The law doesn’t apply to government employees, agricultural laborers, domestic workers in a home, people employed by a parent or spouse, or independent contractors.

A lot of people are reading this with a deep sense of confusion right now — because all of their employers have told them that they couldn’t discuss pay with their coworkers. It’s an incredibly frequently violated law, and most people (including managers) think these policies are normal and have no idea that they violate the law. It’s a weird thing, and good for you for wanting to educate people about it.

{ 252 comments… read them below }

  1. Tau*

    Does anyone know what the legal status of this is in the UK? My contract explicitly forbids me from discussing my salary with other employees, and since I knew that would be illegal in the US from AAM I’ve been wondering how that works here.

    1. Snow*

      I believe this is semi legal here (I’m also UK) The equality act 2010 makes it unlawful to prevent employees from having discussions to establish if there are differences in pay but that only applies if you discuss pay for the purpose of finding out whether pay rates are discriminatory and doesn’t ban pay secrecy clauses outright.

    2. GingerHR*

      It’s not an enforceable term – your contract may be quite old, or a (cheap!) off the shelf one that’s not been properly updated.

      1. Jack the treacle eater*

        From the ACAS website, which is a very good resource if you want to find out about employment law:

        “The Equality Act 2010 makes it unlawful to prevent employees from having discussions to establish if there are differences in pay. However, an employer can require their employees to keep pay rates confidential from people outside of the workplace.”

    3. Cristina in England*

      I came here to ask the same thing. In 2006-7 I worked for a company (since closed) that forbade salary discussions. I always thought that was shady and or downright illegal (they did tons of other illegal stuff anyway) but it is very interesting to read that it was legal at the time!

      1. Merry and Bright*

        Sounds like we used to work for sister companies. Shady all the way.

    4. Merry and Bright*

      I’ve had similar clauses in the past. I’m currently in a government agency though where anyone who knows my job grade can look up my salary because it’s all available publicly anyway.

      The office manager at ShadyCo mentioned below once opened some other people’s payslips to find out what we earned – because we wouldn’t tell her!

  2. Lauren*

    I work for a community two-year) college in California so I am considered a public worker. The salaries of public workers in California are considered public information so all someone has to do to find mine or anyone else’s is to go to Transparent California.

    I actually find that having salaries open is far more conducive to fair employment than nearly anything else. It takes the power secrecy away and makes all this information above board. Others may disagree but it strikes me as extremely fair.

    1. Big10Professor*

      Many studies back this up. Employers with open salaries have far better pay equity for traditionally underpaid demographics.

    2. neverjaunty*

      In California, the state Labor Code explicitly prohibits employers from banning salary discussions. I don’t know the case law for it off the top of my head, but the wording of the statute is very unambiguous.

    3. JBeane*

      Yeah, I agree with you. I also work in higher education and we routinely use the open salary database when applying for new jobs elsewhere in the system. You can see what the previous candidate made, the potential employer can see what your current salary is, and you both can talk about why you deserve to be paid XYZ for what you’ll bring to the table in your new role. It feels a lot better to me than when I’m flying blind with salary expectations during a negotiation with a private company.

    4. Roscoe*

      I believe in some cases it can be good, and some, it can be bad. If its a job, like teaching, where everyone is essentially on the same “track” then sure, it makes sense. But sometimes I don’t necessarily think bosses should have to justify why Jack is making more than Jim. Nor should Jack have to feel bad that he makes more than Jim.

      1. Vizzini*

        But when the bosses don’t want everyone to know that Jack, Fred, and Barney all make more than Jill, Wilma, and Betty for doing the same job, a little sunlight can be a very good thing.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          And really, if I know I’m making less than Jack, it opens up the discussion as to why: what should I be doing that I’m not doing? How can I improve? If I don’t know I’m being paid less, and for a good reason, I may not know I need to improve.

          So, even if the discrimination is legal and appropriate, the openness can be a good thing. At least, if I want to improve.

        2. Roscoe*

          Yeah, but everything isn’t that black and white. Sure, if all of the men make more than all of the women, thats a definite issue. But if 2 guys are making more than one girl, there could be a very valid reason, but all of a sudden there are accusations, questions, all sorts of things going around. I don’t think its my “right” to know what my co-workers make, and I definitely think if t can cause issues.

          Perfect example. I’ve been given raises before basically as a reward for loyalty, since I had stuck around during some trying times. And also because they wanted to make sure I had incentive to stay sinceI was a valued member of the team. Well, if everyone doesn’t get that raise, then its if my raise is made publica whole issue that it doesn’t need to be.

          1. LBK*

            I agree that hypothetically this sounds like a big problem, but I think in reality once the change is made and any real issues are sorted out, the dust will settle pretty quickly and people will adapt to the new status quo much faster that you’d think. I base this on many of the people who do government work here who’ve stated on many occasions that having their salaries be publicly available rarely causes problems – probably because when the salaries are being set, it’s with transparency in mind, and most managers aren’t foolish enough to give out unjustifiably high salaries.

            1. LBK*

              This might be weird but the best analogy I can come up with is a high school locker room. It’s a little uncomfortable to change or shower in front of all your classmates at first, but it pretty quickly normalizes because everyone’s doing it. Everyone is equally exposed, so the discomfort of having something that’s usually more private out there in front of others fades fast.

              1. Florida*

                This is a great analogy. As it is, money is the last taboo in America. Many people are more comfortable telling you about their sex life than they are telling you how much money they make. But if it was standard practice, no one would think much of it. For the most, people are more than willing to tell you how many vacation days they get, even though that varies by company and even within company. We are willing to do it because it’s normal. Salaries should become like that.

            2. Stranger than fiction*

              Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the transparency, but I think there’s a difference with government jobs that makes that easier. Most of them (from what I know) are very much defined, like CSR I does ABC, CSR II does DEF, etc. whereas small company private sector jobs are much more ambiguous, people may have one title but help out in other capacities, reviews and raises may not be given at regular intervals, etc, so pay might be all over the map. Makes it a bit harder to tell what’s fair. I could totally see a war breaking out at my place if they suddenly posted it publicly lol. Big corps are more regimented too. But I could be totally wrong, just a thought.

              1. Roscoe*

                My company is like that. We are fairly small organization, so while there are many of us have the same title, and our primary jobs are the same, there are definite differences that absolutely would lead to a pay discrepancy. If everyone’s salary was all of a sudden public, there would be some issues.

                1. LBK*

                  But are those differences justifiable? If they are, then what’s the issue? If they aren’t, that’s the problem, not whether or not people know about it.

                  You sound like you’re concerned that you probably make more than your coworkers and you don’t want them to know. But if you know that you bring a lot of value to the company, a) your coworkers probably understand that as well and b) why wouldn’t you be getting paid more? You were able to easily summarize why your pay was higher in about 2 concise, perfectly logical sentences. Why would it be so much harder to do that with your coworkers, if it even came up?

              2. LBK*

                But those things probably shouldn’t be so ambiguous. Knowing that the info would be under scrutiny would force people to question those decisions more, which I think is a good thing – it will illuminate biases and make people more thoughtful about how they pay their employees. Right now it’s easy to make these decisions however the hell you want because no one who’ll have any stake it in (ie no one outside of payroll) will ever see how it plays out across the board.

              3. sunny-dee*

                It actually doesn’t make it easier. I had a government job way back in the day. I was an office worker, and I made a certain amount. There were two women who had been in the office longer than me (I was there for 3 months, temp to perm; they’d been there 1-2 years), but they were there as part of a Department of Labor work training program, since they didn’t know computers or office work at all. One of them was livid when she found out I made more money than she did. As in, that is what prompted her to throw a three-hole punch and hit the wall beside my desk. (I don’t even know how much more I made or what her pay was. She looked up my hourly rate somewhere.)

                1. Engineer Girl*

                  Well you had a broader skill set and she was in training. It’s utterly justifiable. Your manager should have shut it down quickly especially the violence.

                2. Anna*

                  That isn’t a problem with having public information public, that’s a problem with a crazy employee thinking throwing something at you was an appropriate response to wondering why you should make more than her.

          2. OhNo*

            But as Thursdays Geek said above, it could also have some real benefits for the company as a whole. If you get a raise for loyalty and your coworkers see that, sure, it might be awkward for a little while. But if they ask to find out why, then they learn that the company rewards loyalty and might consider staying on in the future when they might otherwise jump ship.

            But to be fair, I’m a little biased on the side of openness. I feel like the old adage of “If you don’t have anything to hide…” applies well to salary structures.

          3. Zillah*

            Are you saying that employers having to justify people’s paychecks or your discomfort at any scrutiny is more important combatting pay discrimination (which is a fair bit more damaging than either)?

            1. Roscoe*

              I’m saying it can make things needlessly uncomfortable for a lot of people. And yes, I care a lot about my personal comfort. Make of that what you will.

              1. On the Phone*

                “Make of that what you will.” Meaning, yes, you do value your own personal comfort over exposing possible discrimination. Just come out and say it.

          4. pomme de terre*

            Those of us who traditionally have been underpaid only get what we want via “accusations, questions, all sorts of things.”

            Good employers should be able to explain pay disparities to employees. Having seniority or being a high performer are perfectly valid reasons for a pay differential. If the employer can’t explain it, something is usually wrong. Setting fair/competitive salaries and having frank discussions with employees about compensation are very basic parts of a being a manager and running a business.

      2. neverjaunty*

        If bosses can’t justify why Jack is making more than Jim, then they shouldn’t be paying Jack more than Jim. That doesn’t mean Jim has to be happy with the situation, or that the reasons Jack is paid more are bad ones.

        1. Mike C.*

          Yeah and that’s from a straight business perspective before you start discussing the equality aspects. It’s no different than evaluating vendors or choosing office space or whatever.

      3. Honeybee*

        I think bosses should absolutely have to justify why Jack is making more than Jim. Even if the reason is “he negotiated more than you in the offer stage.” But those sorts of things should be transparent within companies.

    5. TotesMaGoats*

      I also worked for a state university and so my salary was public knowledge. There was a good side but then the bad side was looking up colleagues and higher ups and wondering how in the heck could they pay these people so much money and they do such a crappy job. Made salary negotiations easier though.

      1. fposte*

        Yup. Overall I’m for it, but sometimes ignorance would be more comfortable.

    6. INTP*

      I agree that pay transparency is better for equality. I think companies have made a big deal about the right to confidentiality about our salaries to make us feel like it needs to be some massive secret because that works better for their own ends. They can underpay everyone who for whatever reason was not in a position to negotiate a better salary when they started employment and no one has to know.

        1. Lily Evans*

          Exactly. When I was in high school (2008-2010, so not super long ago) the place I worked (think Wal-Mart but on a slightly smaller scale) told us we weren’t allowed to discuss our paychecks. I had no idea it was illegal for them to make that rule, but since the staff was 70% teenagers, we didn’t listen. That’s how we all found out that the guys were making about fifty cents more on average than the girls. We were all Very Angry about this injustice so… we did nothing about it. Because we were too scared since we “weren’t supposed” to be talking about our pay in the first place. But it was my first step on the road to feminism.

        2. blackcat*

          … and black people, and hispanic people, and any number of other protected classes.

          1. Coywolf*

            Those are not protected classes, anyone can be in a protected class given that discrimination solely has to be based on gender, race, religion, whatever. Not a SPECIFIC gender, race, religion…

    7. LawCat*

      Ooooooh, this is so timely. I just found out some employees who I am on par with in state government make 10% more than I do (I looked up their public salary info after one told me she is paid more). I am going to buy Alison’s book and get my job search ramped up! I know that I am not worth 10% less than my peers.

    8. Roscoe*

      Also, aside from public employees, I think it should be up to the employee if their salary is public or not. If I want to discuss my salary with everyone in the company, its my business. However, if I don’t want everyone knowing what I make, that should be my call as well.

      1. neverjaunty*

        As the original post said, there’s a big difference between having the right to talk about your own paycheck, and having the right to make other people talk about theirs.

        1. Roscoe*

          Exactly. I’m arguing more against “making salaries public”. If you want to discuss among each other, fine. But I don’t buy in to the “a company should be transparent about what everyone makes”. What I make is my business, not yours.

          1. neverjaunty*

            It is my business, if you’re getting paid twice what I am because our boss thinks women who negotiate for salaries are “too aggressive” and anyway that men need to get paid more because they support a family.

      2. Sunshine*

        It is your call. Just because it’s allowed doesn’t mean you have to do it.

      3. Anna*

        People knowing what you make doesn’t mean you personally have to talk about it. But I might want to talk about it to our manager if your work doesn’t really reflect how much you’re making and conversely, mine doesn’t either.

      4. Honeybee*

        Something like this is likely to lead to a situation in which only the people who are disadvantaged by pay gaps are sharing their salaries, and the ones who aren’t are not.

    9. LBK*

      Agreed. I think dramatically improving pay transparency is one of the necessary steps to fighting the wage gap and income inequality; it’s great to put in laws about wage discrimination, but they’re meaningless if no one can ever access the data they need to see if they’re being discriminated against or not. I suspect many cases start just based on a gut sense that pay is inequitable and a hope that the evidence will prove it once the EEOC requests it.

    10. KR*

      Yeah, all my pay information is public knowledge (local government) and our office in general is very open about who makes what and how raises work. It helps everyone feel on the same page.

    11. Mike C.*

      Yes, same here. Once you get past the idiots who live by the idea that “More Money = Better Than You”, you can start to tackle some very important problems.

  3. Gandalf the Nude*

    Situations like this are why employers should be required to post those requirements in the workplace or otherwise show that they’ve informed employees of their rights. I kind of wish the NLRB hadn’t given up that fight.

    1. Rafe*

      It is profoundly weird and wrong that employers can and do actively say and in effect enforce exactly the opposite of the law — and it’s apparently just fine that the practice is so widespread and that entire swaths of the working population do not know one of their basic rights.

      1. Slippy*

        It isn’t all that weird. Most employers know that a high percentage of people will not push back. Of the few people that will push back only a small percentage of them will have the time and money to litigate it. The employers will save more money doing the wrong thing rather than the right; I call this the Pinto syndrome.

          1. Mocha*

            I think Slippy is referring to the Ford Pinto scandal–in the ’70s, Ford decided that the potential cost of recalling and repairing the Ford Pinto outweighed the cost of human lives taken when the Pinto would explode when rear-ended because of its faulty fuel system.

            1. Anna*

              Side note: The Pinto was actually not as unsafe as portrayed. It was more like Ford decided the actual risk of having an explosion where people died was much less than the cost of repairing a system that was highly unlikely to actually explode.

              Ralph Nader didn’t always get it right.

              Back to the regularly scheduled discussion.

            2. neverjaunty*

              No, it was more like Ford decided that the cost of lawsuits for people who got hurt or died in explosions, when weighed against the reduced sales of the Pinto (taking into account the effect of the ultimate cost of the new part on the car’s retail cost), was a better choice. In other words, that they would make more money not fixing the problem and then paying off people who got hurt.

              Ralph Nader didn’t always get it right, either, but that’s hardly a reason to whitewash the Pinto.

        1. Rafe*

          I think it’s weird that the executive branch’s regulators and members of Congress are just fine with the federal law being flouted to such a degree that the vast majority of U.S. workers have effectively been stripped of one of their rights.

          1. Mike C.*

            Those regulators are poorly funded by Congress, and many in Congress wish that right didn’t exist at all.

  4. Pickle*

    I’ve been wondering about this lately: I’m in California, where there’s a stricter law that I believe does extend to supervisory employees. I’m the HR person at my organization, though, so keeping salary information confidential is part of my job. But, would I still be protected if I wanted to share my own salary information with my coworkers?

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      I’m no lawyer but I can’t not see any reason you would not be able to share your own personal information.

    2. Jadelyn*

      Your own information is yours to share as you wish, since it’s information you’d have known anyway regardless of your access to records or confidentiality issues. Only if you were sharing someone else’s, which you only know about because you’re in HR, would you run into confidentiality violation problems.

      There’s also a new pay equality law in CA that explicitly protects workers who ask management or HR how much their coworkers are making. You now can’t retaliate against someone for asking about other people’s pay in the organization – however, the new law has clearly said this does not create an obligation to disclose if asked.

  5. Aunt Vixen*

    My employee manual says “Discussion of salary and . . . compensation with fellow employees or managers is punishable up to termination.” When I signed the form saying I’d received and read and understood it, I noted that I’d comply with policies except those that contravened federal law such as this one. Haven’t heard anything back. I know my manager isn’t going to blow us in if he does “catch” us discussing our pay. Still kind of burns me up that the manual has this policy in it, though.

    1. Mike C.*

      I’ve seen these policies all over the place. When I was a kid, my grandfather ran a night janitorial business for small shops and what not, and a great deal of them had signs in the break rooms banning discussion of wages.

  6. Amber T*

    Question! “But employers are still permitted to consider their salary structure a trade secret and prohibit being released outside the company, to competitors, etc.”

    What are you supposed to do if discussing your pay outside the company isn’t allowed, but a prospective job asks for your salary history? Can you explain “my company doesn’t allow me to say, but I’m looking for $X?” Would that be weird or is that normalish?

    1. Ife*

      I was wondering this too. How specific is it? Does it mean that an employee who told their spouse/mom/neighbor that they make $X per year could actually face consequences at work? What about if they have an accountant prepare their taxes? There are so many times when you need to provide your yearly income, like applying for credit, housing, college, government assistance…

      I am hoping that it’s referring to sharing more formal info, like you are not supposed to share that Teapot Analyst I’s make $X-$Y at your company, Teapot Analyst II’s make $Y-$Z, etc.

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

        I think you’re correct. Alison did specify salary structure, meaning that a single person’s pay doesn’t really give much insight there. Knowing what the pay grades are at a particular location, their bonus/commission rates, that sort of information, that’s much more about competition between employers than about equality among employees.

    2. RVA Cat*

      It sounds like it would have to be about pay bands, etc. rather than an individual’s salary – otherwise how would anyone ever qualify for a loan, etc.?

    3. Apollo Warbucks*

      It would not at all weird to say your bound by a Non discloser agreement, Alison has a post about not sharing salary history with potential new employers, I will try to find it and post a link.

    4. AdAgencyChick*

      This was my immediate reaction — I didn’t realize employers could legally forbid people from disclosing salary history to a competitor.

      I wish this were actually usable in practice. “Sorry, I can’t disclose my salary because my employer has a rule against that. What range are you looking at for the position?” Except no recruiter would EVER just nod and let that slide.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Actually, that’s a thing you can do — “my salary is covered under my confidentiality agreement with my employer, but I’m seeking $X.” I’ve recommended that for years (see the links Apollo posted above). Some recruiters will push back; many won’t.

        1. anonderella*

          Could you say that even if there was no confidentiality agreement that prevented you from doing so? Like if you were just uncomfortable discussing it for whatever reason?

          I mean, I realize you *Can* try anything; I’m wondering if the company you’re interviewing with can confirm with your old company whether that was a part of your confidentiality agreement, though not asking any questions further than that that would breach the agreement?

          1. Triceratops*

            That might come back to bite you in the ass if the new company verifies salary history or asks about your during a reference call and the old company gives out the info with no qualms.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yes, exactly. Really, confidentiality agreement or not, I’d like to see more people pushing back on the idea that their salary history is anyone’s business, although I realize that’s easier said than done in some contexts.

              1. Anon On This One*

                I’m currently casually looking for a new job only because I know what I make is nowhere near market value, but I’m stymied by government contract stuff. Anyway, my plan is to push back if I’m asked but who know if I’ll be able to brave it out.

                1. Snazzy Hat*

                  I filled out an application yesterday that required my entire work history and politely asked (not a required field) for salary history. My first few jobs were minimum wage or within a dollar above, so I was fine with letting that in. I’m not sure if it works, but I feel I add context into those answers, as if to say, “See that hourly rate? Note that I was employed through an agency and it was a huge increase from my retail job. I expect to be paid as one of your employees, doing work that requires experience and a college degree.”

                  p.s. to AAM readers: I’m generalizing all of retail, and recognize there are many degrees which are beneficial for certain retail environments. One of my bosses at the fabric shop had a degree in Home Economics.

      2. PizzaSquared*

        Every recruiter I’ve told this to has accepted it and moved on. Maybe it varies by industry.

    5. PizzaSquared*

      I’ve certainly used that tactic more than once, even when the employer didn’t specifically forbid it – I’ve found it to be an easy way to shut down the whole salary history conversation quickly. I’ve never had a problem. (Though I’m pretty senior; I don’t know if a junior person would get more pushback.)

  7. Kate M*

    So about the exemption for non-supervisory employees. What qualifies a supervisory employee? Is that just if you supervise anyone, or is that more of a C-level designation? And with that exemption, does that mean that the company CAN retaliate if a supervisory employee shares salary information?

    1. LRT*

      The NLRA refers to agents of the employer, or those that act on behalf of the employer. Your 1st line supervisors up through the CEO; anyone in leadership. And I’m aware of no federal law that protects a supervisor’s right to discuss wages and working hours (although there might be an executive order out there that covers supervisors, but only for federal contractors/subcontractors).

  8. Viktoria*

    I used to work as a social/ethical auditor. I toured manufacturing plants, interviewed employees, and reviewed documents on behalf of our clients. One of the more interesting and confrontational audits I conducted was when I was told (by a member of management) that an employee had recently been fired for discussing her wages. I investigated the matter a little further and then brought it up to management and raised it as a finding. The CEO was FURIOUS and backtracked furiously. After a whispered conversation in the hallway the person who told me backtracked too. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been stressful.

    They also had it as a policy in their handbook, which would have been a finding alone even if weren’t for the fired employee.

    1. Viktoria*

      Ahem, correction: it would have been funny if it hadn’t been stressful, illegal, and all-around awful. Sounded a bit self-center there.

    2. I've read that study!*

      How do you go about getting a job as a social/ethical auditor? This is something I’ve wanted to do since college, but I’m not sure which companies actually have these jobs. I have the background for it, I’m just not sure where to look. (Job searches are unhelpful since a lot of companies mention “ethics” in their job descriptions and “auditor” gets you results in finance.)

      1. Viktoria*

        I found my first job at a small company through Craigslist, of all places. Then I got a job at a larger company. It is kind of hard to search for. I don’t want to out myself because both were small teams, but I just made a throwaway e-mail address:

        If you want to e-mail me there I’d be happy to tell you the names of both companies I worked for and some others that I know of, and I’d be happy to answer any questions. It was a cool job but involved a TON of travel so burnout happened pretty quickly for me. It’s nice that you have an interest though, because most of my co-workers stumbled into it like I did, so you’d be well-positioned to apply.

        1. I've read that study!*

          Thanks! I sent you an email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  9. LadyCop*

    I definitely had a former err…Witch of a lieutenant tell me I shouldn’t be looking at other people’s paystubs after a co-worker and I compared ours to verify some vacation pay. She tried really hard to make me sound like the bad guy, but I just steam rolled her over it because she should have better respect for the law. I may have dug my hole deeper, but it felt amazing to let her know that no one was going to let errors just slide.

  10. A Bug!*

    …we still highly discourage [the sharing of pay information] because it can cause hard feelings and workplace drama.

    To be clear, it’s not the sharing that causes the hard feelings and workplace drama. What causes “drama” is when employees are surprised by what they learn about their coworkers’ pay rates.

    1. LBK*

      Excellent point.

      Frankly, I think most of this comes from managers being uncomfortable justifying their decisions. And maybe if they’re not willing to sit down and tell someone to their face “You get paid less than Jane because your work isn’t as good,” that’s a bigger problem.

      1. A Bug!*

        Agreed on both, but there’s a disingenuous element to it, too. The employer discourages the sharing of pay information and justifies it by insisting it’s for the benefit of the employees who would be upset to learn what their coworkers make. But it’s the employer who most stands to benefit from it in almost every way, by virtue of being the only party with the full picture. Not just by saving themselves from a hard conversation, but also by keeping their employees in a weaker bargaining position.

    2. Granite*

      Yes. Especially when they find less experienced male colleagues are being paid more for similar work.

      1. Read the Post Before Commenting*

        If you read the letter though, you will notice that in this case the OP states that “the boss seems to be biased against male employees”

        1. Apollo Warbucks*

          The gender pay gap is real, very very real, women on average earn less than men. I can point to individual cases where I know women are paid as well as or more than men, but the general pattern can’t be denied.

          For what’s it’s worth I don’t think the reason is entirely down companies directly discriminating against women but rather other a disparate impact from other social factors, such as women being less inclined to negotiate, taking time out of he work place and gender norms that means traditionally female occupations are lower paying.

          1. esra*

            women being less inclined to negotiate

            This always bothers me a bit because a big part of the reason women are less inclined to negotiate is because of the double standard in perception. I push hard and negotiate, “God that esra. She’s so pushy. So bossy!” Where a man in the same position is a straight forward go-getter.

            1. Apollo Warbucks*

              I agree it sucks, it’s bullshit social conditioning plays into gender norms.

            2. Mreasy*

              I am totally inclined to negotiate and I’m quite good at it, generally, as part of my professional duties. And yet, I’m quite confident I make at least 20% less than my male executive peers!

              1. neverjaunty*

                But “you ladies just need to negotiate more” is a great way to make it all your own fault!

          2. Triceratops*

            There’s also some evidence that professions become lower paying as more women join. Google “new york times lower pay as professions become female-dominated” and I’ll link below as well

              1. Bluesboy*

                An interesting article, thanks for linking to it! One issue with the principal point though – salaries could just be dropping because with the addition of women, more people are applying for those jobs now.

                I mean if before the job was only available to 50% of people, and now it’s available to 100% of people it stands to reason that wages would drop due to greater competition for places. What would be interesting would be to see if the same happens when men join a typically female dominated industry (say childcare) – if wages go down then that’s one thing. If they go up, then it would REALLY prove the inherent sexism.

                I think there’s a lot of sexism in salaries in many industries, I’m just not sure if the fact that pay drops as more people enter that industry is evidence of it. Certainly I’ve worked in both a dramatically male-dominated industry and a dramatically female-dominated industry – and entry level salaries in the male one were about the same as middle management in the female one.

                I’d like to say that women are paid equally here (I’m now in the male-dominated one). But it’s difficult to judge as out of 46 of us, 44 are men. And one of the two women is an intern…

        2. LBK*

          I think Granite was speaking more broadly about pay trend discrepancies, not about this specific instance.

    3. ThursdaysGeek*

      Very much true! I worked at a job where payroll was part of the job, so salaries weren’t a secret. The guy at the same level as me was paid more. He’d been there longer and it was fine.

      A couple of years later under new management, when his salary suddenly jumped because he got a secret promotion but his work didn’t change, it was no longer fine. Our team discussed the situation: the two men in the group were sure it was because I was a woman, so we all found different jobs. It was nice that they didn’t want to go along with that either, including the guy who got the promotion.

      Without that transparency, the management would have had to resort to additional unpleasantnesses in order to get me to leave.

  11. INFJ*

    Wow, all really great points/nuances. I was aware of this right, but it was nice to see all these different scenarios spelled out. I especially liked this one:

    “singling out pay discussions for prohibition while allowing other non-work-related conversations wouldn’t fly. So if they prohibit you from socializing/chit-chatting/talking about TV at work, then they can include this too. But they can’t say, “You can talk about your kids and what you did this weekend but not what you’re paid.” If they allow non-work-related conversation on the job, they have to allow this.”

    1. Not So NewReader*

      There are times where the laws just do not make sense to me. Pay has nothing to do with work? hmmm.

  12. other rick*

    Within the first 90 days of my first job, a coworker of mine heard me parroting the company policy and said “Nope, that’s not legal for Teapots LLC to do in California,” and looked up the relevant statues. A few months later, I Altavista’d the legality of a bunch of sketchy clauses in the employee handbook (that’s how long ago this was). Since then, I’ve been happy to sign something saying I’d read the handbook, but never something that says I’d abide by it.

    1. Jadelyn*

      IANAL, but my understanding is that even if you sign saying you’ll abide by a policy, that signature and your agreement to abide by the policy is unenforceable when it comes to any illegal provisions.

      1. Chriama*

        Exactly. You can’t sign away legal rights for any reason, and company policy can never give you *less* rights than legally required, only more, so it would be unenforceable.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          I’m not sure which rights you were talking about, but in fact under the law you *can* sign away some legal rights. I assumed what you meant is that an employer cannot force an employee to give up certain legal rights, and that’s true. But I wanted to chime in to make it clear that it’s not true that you cannot ever sign away your legal rights.

  13. Apollo Warbucks*

    I hate companies who think they can restrict employees legal rights, OP I hope take a stand and please let us know how it goes.

    Also I found this pod cast very interesting, it’s about what happened at a firm when everyone shared their salary information with each other.

    It’s secret salaries that allow pay disparity to creep in and it’s hard to make up for being under paid the effects of significant.

  14. Bob*

    I would love to hear stories about what happened after employees suddenly started openly sharing their salaries. It would be absolute chaos in my workplace because there is no consistency in how they pay anyone (other than as little as possible). After years of hiring in good/bad economies, making counter offers, etc., salaries are all over the place for the same job with the same level of experience.

    1. Roscoe*

      Thats exactly why I would be apprehensive. All of a sudden one person is villified because they make more. They shouldn’t have to defend their pay. Nor should the manager have to look up everything that went into it. And for some people, a simple “they negotiated salary better” still wouldn’t be a good enough excues.

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        But legitimate reasons for pay gaps stand scrutiny, systematic discrimination and unfair practices do not.

        1. Anna*

          Precisely this. The argument being made for not being transparent about salary is the age-old argument people use when they think equality and fairness means in order for someone to gain, they have to lose.

      2. Jadelyn*

        The problem there, though, is that the employee should never be the one having to defend their pay. They didn’t set their own pay rate – the company did, and it’s the company who’s responsible for any defending. I think most employees will direct their ire at the employer rather than the employee.

        But even in the case that employees are upset with the employee for making more, I’m still not willing to sacrifice people’s ability to find out and combat wage discrimination in order to preserve the comfort of someone privileged enough to be given a better wage.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Hopefully, most people would eventually figure out that if pay is not allowed to be discussed perhaps the employee had no idea there was such a disparity in rates. In my early years working, it never even occurred to me to ask someone how much they made.

      3. ThursdaysGeek*

        The excuse “they negotiated salary better” does bother me. I know I’m being penalized for being a poor negotiator, which is not part of my core job skills. But when I’ve found out about better pay in the past, because the person was a better negotiator (and certainly not a better programmer!), I was not upset at him, but at the system. I’m being paid according to something I do every few to several years instead of something I do well every day.

        1. Roscoe*

          Well, I think that is a strategy that is good in life. So if someone negotiates a better starting salary than me, or a better price on a home, or whatever, I’m not going to be mad about it.

          1. LBK*

            Realistically, though, negotiation doesn’t start being a big factor until you’re high enough up in the hierarchy that the company needs you almost as much as you need them. At entry level and the first few rungs above it, you don’t have the chips to play your hand too hard – often “negotiating better” basically just means asking for more and getting it. I’d be very surprised if many people had stories of genuine back-and-forth and compromise in negotiating salary/benefits below the middle management level.

            All this to say that at the lower levels, successful negotiation is almost all about the hiring manager’s impression of you, and it’s been fairly conclusively proven that women are viewed as abrasive or selfish in a disproportionate manner to men when they ask for more money.

            1. Apollo Warbucks*

              Yeah I agree with this, my one and only salary negotiation involved me asking for another £1,000 and them saying ok.

            2. Chameleon*

              There’s also the fact that a lot of people have backgrounds where they never learned negotiating is A Thing You Can Do. When everyone you know gets a job where salary is what management offers and if you don’t like it sometime else will, you may not realize that the professional job you just landed *expects* salary negotiations.

              1. Honeybee*

                This. If you come from a working-class background, negotiations aren’t really a thing.

      4. Observer*

        All of a sudden one person is villified because they make more.

        In real life, that’s highly unlikely. Most people understand that the person who does well for him / herself is not the problem. Of course, if it was done at the expense of others or the person is a jerk etc. that’s a different story.

        Nor should the manager have to look up everything that went into it.

        Why not? If you gave someone something, you do need to be able to defend it. What you are essentially saying is “I want to be able to pay people differently without having to have a good reason for it.”

        for some people, a simple “they negotiated salary better” still wouldn’t be a good enough excues.

        As others have pointed out, there is a good reason for that. What makes it worse is that women have the deck stacked against them when it comes to negotiating. The same thing that makes a guy look “confident” and a “go getter” is seen in a woman as “arrogant” and “grabby”.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I agree that reasons for raises should be fairly easy to access and explain. If those reasons are not easy to access/explain maybe that would be a sign that the system for awarding raises is not as fair as it should be.

        2. Zillah*

          Yep. Resistanting measures that would help mediate the pervasive negative impact that various -isms have on many, many people on the grounds that “I earned this” is ignoring the possibility that you got a leg up that others were denied. It’s an implicit endorsement of racism and/or sexism and/or ableism etc etc.

      5. Honeybee*

        Negotiating salary better might be a decent excuse if there’s no consistent pattern to the pay gap. If there is one that points towards systemic discrimination (because remember, men are perceived as better negotiators than women simply because we’ve been socialized to perceive women who push back as “bossy” or a “bitch”)…then that deserves more scrutiny.

    2. Mike C.*

      Managers should absolutely be able to justify exactly why they’re paying someone a particular salary.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        Are we supposed to justify this to the employees? Because that’s who’s going to ask the questions, and I’m not authorized to discuss other people’s personnel situations. I’ve already had to justify every salary and bonus recommendation I make to HR (who discrimination tests), to an executive committee, and to my boss. How many more times do I have to explain myself?

        Personally, I don’t really care if my employees discuss salary/compare notes. It’s their right, and I just can’t get all pearl-clutchy about it being “unprofessional”. I’m also happy to discuss their individual situation with them. I just can’t get mired down in explaining small differences, have to provide what I think will be unsatisfying explanations trying not to get too specific about other people’s situations, and the general perception I find people have about how much they are worth (like the person who told me that their research said a 12% raise was the average annual raise in the US and would not be persuaded that their raise was pretty darn good for not hitting performance targets, the people who fail to account for their benefits costs, the people who assume that clients pay for 100% of their full billing rate 100% of the time).

        I also have a situation where I have an overpaid employee because of a faulty compensation system that I inherited. I’d really people rather not find out what that person makes because better employees make less, and there is really no way to drop the overpaid employee’s salary to market value. They have not gotten a raise in several years, and it’s course correcting over time, but I can’t afford to pay everyone at this person’s rate (I’d lose at least one position, probably two with an across the board raise), but I would absolutely understand how morale-killing it might be for some people to compare comp with this person even though we’re at or above market for other positions. It sucks, but there is really not much that I can do with what I inherited and the parameters I’ve been provided to deal with it.

        1. Observer*

          Essentially what you are saying is that these discussions would expose bad management and / or hit on people who don’t understand how things work. By an large, the former is a good ting, although I do understand how it cold affect you personally and how it sometimes has negative effects on people who are not at fault. But overall, it’s a good thing when stupid and bad practices are exposed to sunlight and fumigated.

          As for the other issue, you just proved that it doesn’t make that much of a difference. The person who doesn’t understand about the need to hit reasonable targets is not going to understand, whether they know what others are getting paid or not.

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            No, I’m saying that having to have this discussion with 30 people would eat a lot of time that I don’t have and end up being unsatisfying to them because I can’t tell them that Suzy is overpaid and an anomaly within the program that HR won’t let me do a comp decrease on or that Joe is on a PIP and steps away from being fired. When I’ve had to have these conversations, they are people coming to me and saying, “Explain to me why you pay Jane $500/year more than me.”, and, when I try to focus on areas of their performance that would lend themselves to a better raise/bonus, the conversation tends to focus back over to Jane, whose situation I cannot discuss with them.

            Where is is frustrating for me is that, again, I’ve already had to justify these decisions six ways to Sunday to even get raises approved for people, so it’s frustrating to have to then deal with a parade of demands that I justify the comp of someone who is not them. We do annual reviews against performance metrics, so raise/bonus assessment factors are not a surprise.

            Again, I don’t mind the employees discussing their salaries with each other or with me. I’m not opposed to openness and have very clear qualitative and quantitative markers that drive these decisions that are provided to employees from Day 1. I’m happy to discuss with people how these apply to their performance, but most questions/discussions that arise from salary comparison relate more to their wanting to know why someone else’s salary is what it is, and that’s not something I can talk about openly.

            I’m not at all suggesting banning comp comparisons, just expressing why I find them to cause a lot of angst that it’s difficult and time-consuming to deal with as a manager based on my experiences. It’s not always about oppressing the masses.

    3. LBK*

      It would be absolute chaos in my workplace because there is no consistency in how they pay anyone (other than as little as possible).

      The bold part is the real issue here. Covering it up by not letting anyone know how much others are getting paid is just hiding a problem that should be fixed; dodging the chaos that results from failing to manage well is not an acceptable tactic.

  15. The other side of the sword*

    Transparency is a two edge-sword. When salaries are posted, particularly when jobs are not identical, it ranks employees from the most valuable to the least valuable. The drama can start when someone has delusions about being more valuable than what their pay indicates compared to others. The playing field may be level at hiring, but the longer someone is with you, the more variability in pay gets built in because some people work harder, are more innovative, are more helpful, pursue more professional development, etc, than others. What can sometimes happen when an employer has to post salaries is that they will resort to a strict pay scale with no rewards for their top workers in order to avoid the drama.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      There are many legitimate reasons for pay disparity but I think it does more harm to keep people in the dark, my former coworker was paid £15,000 more than me for a very similar job there’s no excusing that I left for a new job shortly after finding that out.

    2. LBK*

      I think that’s true if you have lazy, cowardly management, but the correct answer to dealing with those dramatic people isn’t to punish everyone else because you can’t be bothered to solve problems or address conflict. If you’re doing your job as a manager, it shouldn’t ever be a surprise to someone how they’re compensated relative to others, because a bad employee should be getting regular feedback telling them as such, and a good employee should be getting regularly rewarded for their work. There’s always going to be people who incorrectly insist that they’re underappreciated. They exist now with pay being entirely opaque; I don’t think the downsides of giving them more ammo to fuel their delusions are worse than the upsides to everyone else.

      1. LBK*

        And I understand that not everyone has good, responsible management that can handle this kind of situation, but I don’t think bad management is a reason to nix otherwise beneficial ideas across the board (much like managers who can’t handle giving their employees schedule flexibility because it requires putting more effort into accountability and performance management).

    3. Mike C.*

      Or they can do the right think and justify why people are paid what they are, have standardized ranges for particular jobs (to allow for this).

      That, and if they’re seriously concerned about their employees whining like children who can’t understand these sorts of differences maybe they should explain why they’re hiring children in the first place.

    4. Observer*

      Not in a well run organization.

      Of course, in a well run organization, the reasons for these disparities are documented. That’s good for everyone as well as for fairness and morale. Sure, people with delusions are going to be mad, but you don’t run your business around employees who are delusional – and generally not your best employees anyway.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Being afraid of drama will not insure the success of the business. Ironically, it seems that the places that are the most afraid of drama, end up having the most drama. That is because, in part, employees learn that to get their way they must create drama.

  16. Student*

    Best way I know to fight this kind of thing is to just tell your co-workers how much you make, and not pressure them to reciprocate. You’re leaving soon. Arm your co-workers with knowledge and break the stigma of talking about it. Doing more than that is not really in your best interests.

    Bosses don’t want workers discussing pay because then people can re-evaluate whether they’re getting a “fair” deal. Allocating pay fairly instead of based on personal preferences or greasing the loudest wheel is hard, so some people don’t bother even trying. In the partial defense of bosses, some employees think a lot more of themselves than is merited, and it’s easier to keep those folks in the dark than explain they aren’t as great in the boss’s evaluation as they are in their own evaluation. There’s research on the impact of pay transparency if you’re interested – it’s generally good, after a transition period where everyone re-evaluates status.

  17. SweetAnnie*

    OP – why do you feel the need to start or lead this crusade? Does it really make any difference to you whether your coworkers know that they can discuss their wages? Sounds to me like you are just trying to maybe be a worm in the ointment there. If the subject comes up, sure. Have the conversation. But flyers? Posters? Sheesh.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      Yeah I mean why should the OP want to exercise their legal rights and object to them being unlawful curtailed? Also there’s not enough information in the letter to work out the OPs intentions or motivation so it’s pretty rude to insult them.

    2. DMC*

      I did have a slightly similar impression, though I think I wouldn’t phrase it quite the way you did :) I understand getting passionate about a wrong and wanting to become an advocate. I agree probably the better way to do it is to discuss it if the subject comes up and/or for the OP to tell coworkers what she or he makes. Let slide in conversation that it’s legal for them to discuss their wages. But flyers and posters, eh, it does sort of strike me as a bit off putting, for some reason.

      1. Mike C.*

        There are (should be!) tons of posters in your break room or similar area about your other workplace rights, why is this so different?

    3. MommaTRex*

      Yes, it makes a difference! The OP wants people to know their legal rights! Hooray!

    4. Roscoe*

      I think OP is young and idealistic. I remember one of my first jobs, a well liked co-worker got fired for some fishy reasons. There was talk of a walk out, blue flu or whatever you want to call it. I told my mom about it, and she basically asked point blank why I would do that. It wouldn’t do me any good. If I didn’t lose my job, I wouldn’t be well liked by management. And co-worker would be off to the next thing in their life. Needless to say, I didn’t do it (and come to think of it, no one did)

      1. Honeybee*

        I’m not commenting on whether your choice was right or wrong. But if everyone who wanted to advocate for change didn’t do so because they were afraid people wouldn’t like them anymore, then most of the rights we currently have as workers and citizens wouldn’t exist. And you don’t have to be young or idealistic to believe that people deserve basic labor rights, like the right to discuss wages. Discussing wages is a fundamental part of collectively bargaining; that’s why it’s protected by law.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I’ve had a few hard lessons about advocating for people. The first thing to look at is if the person is advocating for themselves or wants advocacy. From Roscoe’s post I can’t really tell how the person felt about the troops rallying for her. The workers could have used a secondary strategy of demanding fairness from management, but that is a long, steep hill in some workplaces.

    5. Jadelyn*

      If people always took that stance, we might still be in the dark ages of labor rights working 12-hour days 6 days a week. So what if the OP *is* just trying to stir things up? The company is engaging in illegal suppression of worker’s rights, and whether or not it affects the OP personally I’m all in favor of people standing up and claiming their legal rights.

    6. Mike C.*

      It makes a huge difference. How in the heck is equalizing information asymmetry “being the worm in the ointment”?

    7. Observer*

      “Worm in the ointment”? The OP didn’t make any overblown claims, but it hardly sounds like a wonderful place to work. If they have one illegal policy, what makes you think they don’t have others?

    8. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Whoa, no! I know that when one is saying this kind of thing in the moment, it feels reasonable, but step back and consider that that’s exactly the kind of thing that’s been used against civil rights protesters and other people advocating for important change throughout history.

    9. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      It sounds like she wants to get involved because she wants to help her coworkers avoid being taken advantage of. That’s admirable. I don’t understand why you think otherwise. Can you help me understand?

      1. SweetAnnie*

        I guess I’m more of a “mind my own business” type. Her coworkers may not feel they are being taken advantage of. She is assuming they feel that way. Her coworkers have access to the same information she herself does, they can find out for themselves if they are being paid fairly. She mentions being out of there in a month, kind of sounds like she wants to rile things up just before she leaves. I’m not explaining myself well, I know. If asked about the subject, sure I’d talk to a coworker about it. Wouldn’t necessarily show my paystub, that is none of anyone else’s beeswax. I just wouldn’t make a production out of it with posters or make it my crusade. Just IMHO

        1. SweetAnnie*

          AND… just have to say the whole “it makes for hard feelings in the workplace” — yeah I guess it does but who says everyone has to be paid equally? My pay is up to me to negotiate. I’m intelligent enough to research the standards, evaluate my skills and knowledge and negotiate a fair salary for myself. If someone is making more than me, good on them. If I feel that’s unfair, I can ask for a raise. If you make less than me, that’s on you for not negotiating better and knowing your worth.

          1. Observer*

            Yes, but if someone is told that they can be fired, and it’s illegal to do that, then why would it be INAPPROPRIATE to make sure that people know what their rights are. The OP was not talking about how she can let all of her co-workers know what her pay is, but how she can let people know that even though the boss said they are not allowed to talk about their pay, they actually ARE allowed.

          2. Mike C.*

            That’s what Lily Ledbetter thought. Are you trying to say that she got what she deserved because she was bad at negotiating?

            When you look at wages broken down by gender and race, do you believe that white men make more than white women because they aren’t as good at negotiation? What about the fact that black men make less than either? Or black women being right at the bottom?

            When you can clearly mark the issue along lines that are rooted in biological or social conventions, blaming it on personal circumstances doesn’t make much sense to me.

            1. neverjaunty*

              It makes a lot of sense to someone who has a strong need to believe in their own exceptionalism and that bad things only happen to the undeserving.

              1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

                To be fair, we all have that need. It’s necessary to survive in a world filled with inequality; otherwise we’d all spend our days wailing and gnashing our teeth. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t push against it and fight for change.

            2. LBK*

              This is my favorite flaw in the whole “it should all just be based on merit” argument from people who think we don’t need things like affirmative action or more aggressive pay regulations. So…you’re saying white men are just better at everything, and that’s why they get paid the most? Okay…

          3. Honeybee*

            No, it’s not. Sometimes it’s because I’m black or a woman or have a disability or am part of a minority religious group. Sometimes it’s because I’m from a background that never emphasized or taught about negotiating. Sometimes it’s because upper management at my company is full of douchebags. There are elements of personal responsibility to workplace rights and pay, but societal factors are a huge, huge part of that.

            1. Jadelyn*

              There’s also been research showing that even when those in non-white non-male categories *do* try to negotiate, the attempt itself is received very differently by managers and executives. A white man negotiating salary is assertive and to be expected and admired, and they’ll work with him. A white woman negotiating salary is greedy and pushy, and gods forbid a woman of color try to negotiate salary, because in many cases they actually end up getting less than they’d have gotten otherwise over the long-term, due to starting off with a handicap in terms of their new boss’s opinion of them which can lead to fewer promotions and raises down the road.

          4. Sue Wilson*

            People who don’t know what they’re rights are correspondingly don’t know when they’re being taken advantage of.

            And it’s kinda rude to make character judgments about people’s ability to access information.

          5. pomme de terre*

            How do you research the standards of what people are paid without salary transparency? You ask peers and check public databases and sites like glassdoor, right? How is that different from what OP is doing? What’s shameful/private about a salary if it’s based on skills and knowledge and solid negotiating?

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I totally get that — but there’s a difference between “I wouldn’t do this” (perfectly legitimate) and “you shouldn’t do this” (which is problematic for the reasons I and other talk about above).

        3. neverjaunty*

          If their company is lying to them about their legal rights, they ARE being taken advantage of.

        4. Mookie*

          The whole premise of labor rights is that you can’t negotiate for protections as a powerless individual. The workplace as it exists today is the result of collective action and bargaining. It is everybody’s business. Whether you care for it or otherwise, you’re enjoying the benefits others sacrificed their own wages, future, and safety for. You are a beneficiary of that.

    10. Honeybee*

      If you don’t already, you should investigate the history of the labor rights movement in the U.S. (and across the world). This is how change gets effected and how equality is one – by some people getting fed up at companies taking advantage of employees in large and small ways and doing something about it. Of course it makes a difference, because transparency in wages means that people notice when certain groups are being discriminated against or when everyone is getting paid way below market or if someone is getting unfair benefits.

  18. DMC*

    I have worked in both the public and private sector. In the public sector, everyone knows what everyone makes. We could look up salary online. That pretty much lead to everyone being paid about the same, with no incentive for high performers (and hence the notorious public sector mediocre employee syndrome). That being said, I don’t think any of us were mediocre employees :) I’m just saying that it pretty much did take away the actual incentive to work harder, but I think the department I worked in just had some good folks with strong work ethics (with maybe one or two exceptions). As for the private sector, where I work now, pay is private. Of course, we can discuss our pay with each other, but no one does, and not because of any direction from management. It’s just seen as a Thing That’s Not Polite To Do, I guess. But it does allow for differential raises based on merit/performance. I’m not sure, frankly, which system is better, but I think there’s a lot of good in transparency, but only in the systems where people are paid differently based on merit (which might include some longevity-based differences in pay). I actually do understand why managers don’t want folks discussing pay. It can lead to drama unless everyone is paid exactly the same, and then frankly, that’s going to be inherently UNFAIR if high performers get the exact same as the person who does the bare minimum needed to skate by without getting outright fired. Unfortunately, very few transparency based systems that I’ve encountered do allow for differences in pay based on merit, etc. Unless they are tied directly to something measurable (like sales-based commissions), it becomes a ho-hum system. IT also means no negotiating for new hires. In the public sector job, they told me up front – no negotiation. This is the salary. There’s no room to budge. Increases are set, they are tiny, and when there is a wage freeze, too bad. Basically, no matter how AWESOME I might do, I would still only get, maybe, my 1.5% raise the next year….if there wasn’t a wage freeze in place. Yay, transparency!
    I actually LIKE where I work now. Last year I got something like a 9% raise and my boss let it be known it was because she really appreciates all that I do.

    1. Roscoe*

      Thats exactly it. Someone could easily be given a raise based on a lot of immeasurable things. And its not that others are bad employees, its that your boss could value X over Y. In some people’s minds you could be a slacker, but your boss knows things they don’t .

      1. Judy*

        At one large company I worked for, the first department I was in gave minimal (no more than 2%) raises to me. I was told that these were “good raises” based on the available raise pool. Each year during my performance evaluation, I was told I was doing a great job, there was nothing to really work on. I was in that department for 2.5 years before I found another internal job.

        I moved to another department, and my new manager managed to get me a 10% off cycle raise, because I was so far below the range. I’m sure it was not _only_ that I was a female engineer. I also didn’t go to the right church and I wasn’t a member of the golf club that most successful members of that department were members of.

      2. Mike C.*

        The manager should be able to give a business justification for what they pay someone, and for the differences in pay between similar employees. This idea that there’s just a bunch of unknowable justifications is simply nuts. Everything else in business is measured, qualitatively if not quantitatively, so why are salaries so different?

        1. Roscoe*

          Sometimes you just value one employee more than the other. Their measurable outcomes could be equal, but maybe one person has other things that are different. The reason that stuff gets hard is when you say Bill has shown more leadership than you Bob, and Bob doesn’t agree. There may not be a ton of concrete things. But while Bob may be perfectly fine at his job, the company really doesn’t want to lose Bill and will pay him more.

          1. Anna*

            Again, if a manager is doing that, the manager should have a really good reason to pay Bill more and that reason is not good if it’s “I just like Bill better than Bob.”

          2. Mike C.*

            Where does that value come from? If you can’t evaluate value, you suck at business.

            It doesn’t matter if Bob doesn’t agree, this isn’t a system based on popular consensus. What matters is that there are concrete rubrics for how different people are paid. These can be qualitative or quantitative but they need to be applied to everyone in the same way.

            1. LBK*

              Exactly – if Bob doesn’t agree, so what? If there’s genuine evidence that Bill is exhibiting more leadership qualities than Bob, it should be easy to explain to Bob what he’d need to do in order to get to Bill’s level. If there isn’t, well, maybe the manager needs to consider if Bill actually does exhibit any more leadership or if there are mitigating factors that might be skewing his view (like race or gender).

              Conversations like this are important because they force people to shine a light on their own reasoning, which often illuminates biases when the reason comes down to “I just like Bob more.”

          3. Honeybee*

            Yes, sure, and sometimes the “other things that are different” is “Bill is a Gators fan like me, but Bob likes the Seminoles” or “Bill is a hard driving ambitious go-getter, but that Betsy is a bitch” (even though they do the same thing) or “Bill is the CEO’s cousin.”

          4. NotAnotherManager!*

            Eh, I think you can measure pretty much everything. It might not be “Bob outputs 100 units in the time it takes Bill to output 75”, but instead, “Bob gets his work done and is willing to help his peers, and Bill does his work well but refuses to help his coworkers”. That’s not quantitative, but it is concrete, and it is direct feedback that can be provided to Bill to improve his performance to Bob’s level.

      3. pomme de terre*

        Raises should never be given over “immeasurable things.” If the boss values X over Y, he’s measuring it. If he can’t justify why a raise is being given, why is he giving it? The people who are bad at X know that the boss values X can improve their X skills after being passed over.

    2. Slippy*

      I’ve worked in both public and private sectors before as well. There definitely are ways to reward/provide incentives for high performers; offhand I know NASA and FDA offer bonuses or extra days off. However it is on an agency by agency basis so if you are not seeing reward for the high performers then either it is crappy management (surprise! but by no means limited to the government), budget issues (thanks congress), or these people are not as good as they think they are.

    3. Mike C.*

      One does not have to follow the other. You can easily have standardized bands for particular jobs, with room for performance, seniority and so on. You can also have incentive programs on top of that for bonuses and other rewards. There’s plenty of room to be open about wages while allowing increased pay for better performers. Yes, even in the dreaded “unionized workplace”.

      What you’re talking about is nothing more than lazy management or imaginary fears of how otherwise perfectly fine adults are going to act in the first place.

      1. DMC*

        You can have all that….just not all that easily :) I’d disagree with you there. I’ve worked in quite a few different places (public and private). My experience is it is much easier to SAY (or type into a comment) than do. It can be done, but the reason it is not done more often is, in fact, it IS easier in actual practice to just go the “we pay everyone the same with no wiggle room” route.

        1. Mike C.*

          Of course it’s easier to say than do. It doesn’t make it not worth doing.

    4. Honeybee*

      Well, it’s not true that public salaries prevent individual raises for merit. Managers who avoid giving out raises and promotions because they don’t want to justify how and why those raises came about are just bad managers, who would rather avoid having to explain their actions than actually rewarding their workers for hard work.

      People don’t need to be paid exactly the same to avoid drama – even in companies where employees don’t openly discuss salary, I’m pretty sure most people are at least vaguely aware when someone else at their level makes more or gets a faster promotion than them for better work. Documentation and transparency are what prevent drama.

      1. pomme de terre*

        “Documentation and transparency are what prevent drama.” A THOUSAND TIMES YES.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      Tiny increases are not tied to transparency. There are plenty of non-transparent places that will plead “budget! budget!” and give a tiny raise. One large for profit company that I know of did not give anyone a raise for several years. Over that time, they also canceled the pension plan, then they got rid of the 401k matching contribution. After that they announced people would be taking a pay cut, because budget! budget! Meanwhile, the big wigs got a nice raise. It was in the news. The company also got sued for playing with the employees OT time pay rates.

    6. Jules*

      Fair pay =/= paid equally. Good managers can explain why pay is being differentiated. You might not like what you hear but it’s a reality check.

  19. AF*

    OP, I just wanted to second Alison that it is awesome and brave of you to want to share this information with your coworkers. Best of luck with wherever you’re going next, and hopefully you and your coworkers are getting paid a lot more there!

    While it’s true that some people might not think they’re being paid fairly, and could cause a headache for their supervisors by complaining, the “you can’t talk about your salary with co-workers” rule is often used against women and minority/marginalized groups where there is actual pay discrimination involved. Employers with fair systems in place shouldn’t have a problem explaining it. I work for a large university hospital, and there’s an actual algorithm in place that determines pay. That’s not feasible for all companies, but there should be some kind of consistent practice within a workplace.

    1. Mike C.*

      Yes OP, great work in having the guts to stand up and help your coworkers better understand their rights!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      We are all getting educated by reading here. That is why we keep coming back. Keep reading here, that stupid feeling is only temporary. ;)

  20. Jeanne*

    The amazing part of this story is that OP was in her first, *low-paying* job. Management is upset that she was probably showing people that she made minimum wage. There can’t be that many pay discrepancies at a small, low-paying business. One of the things managers should not do is make a big deal out of petty things. That leads to more drama than a dime an hour pay difference.

  21. keep climbing*

    I’m glad that you are posting about this issue. My spouse was fired from a major airline for discussing their salary with their coworkers. After my significant other discussed salary with their coworkers, a meeting was held where everyone was told that discussing salary was a fireable offense. My SO was then reprimanded for minor workplace issues that had not been mentioned in 5+ years of employment (including hygiene, which I will say was NOT an issue). My SO was fired within a week of the reprimand.

    None of this was ever put in writing, and my SO asked a few coworkers if they would discuss this situation with the NLRB, but everyone was still employed and wished to remain that way. My SO was actually in the middle of getting hired someplace else and was able to move up their first day so that there was no gap in income. I think because of that last point, my spouse decided to let this go. I still wish they had been willing to go to the NLRB, but it’s not my battle to fight.

    1. AK*

      When I worked for a major airline, our salaries were strictly seniority based and the pay scale was actually posted on the wall. If you knew someone’s hire date, you knew what they got paid, and pay scales were always a topic of discussion. We weren’t union at the time, either. (We were frontline shift workers though, so they sort of treated us as if we were union – but we knew they could take that away at any moment.)
      Going from that to an environment where pay wasn’t a topic of every day conversation was odd for me.

  22. KW10*

    Whenever salary comes up (i.e. raises or bonuses) my boss always says “I can’t legally prohibit you from discussing this with other people here, but I highly recommend that you don’t because it trends to create hard feelings all around.” I’ve always found it kind of funny how he recognizes our legal rights … while still basically telling us not to discuss salary! Plus, the most ironic part is that almost everyone’s salaries are visible in the project budgets.

  23. Elle*

    I’ll also point out that if I understand the law correctly, even “highly discouraging” these discussions is illegal. I believe the term is “chilling.” So, anything that inhibits your rights to engage in concerted activity would be considered to have a chilling effect on employee’s Section 7 activity. Companies really ought to train their managers to know this stuff…they’re putting themselves in a really bad position.

  24. Employment Lawyer*

    True statements:

    1) You are, as AAM stated, entitled to discuss pay…. IF you are covered by the NLRB. It isn’t always clear where that coverage ends. You probably are unless your company is really really small.

    2) There are things your employer can legally do, which you wouldn’t like. Smart employers will avoid. (Like, say, “fire everyone who spends more than 5 seconds discussing non-work topics” or “pay every two weeks, by mail only, using the maximum legal delay,” or “give no notice at all for any layoff or firing, ever.” ) Employers who push the boundaries of their rights are considered to be bad employers, and nobody wants to work for them–even though what they are doing is perfectly legal.

    3) There are rights you have, which a smart employee will avoid. Discussing pay openly, if your employers are asking you not to, is one of them. You can still do it, of course. But nobody will hire you if they find out. I wouldn’t hire you and I would tell my clients to avoid you like the plague: it isn’t the PAY that shows a problem, it’s the “rights boundary” approach.

    It is even worse if you take a job and immediately begin organizing because you don’t like the job. Especially if the pay is above minimum wage and otherwise legal.

    If you want to have employment other than as a professional organizer, you may want to tone it down a bit.

    1. Chameleon*

      Wow. An *employment lawyer* is advocating discrimination against people for exercising their legal rights.

      1. Chickaletta*

        Seriously. Wasn’t there a comment the other day (maybe it was in the comments section) that employment lawyers are sometimes the worst employers?

      1. Not So NewReader*

        We have many of these types of laws. And we are getting more of them every day.

    2. Liz*

      I am frequently baffled by the advice you give in the comments on this site, and this time is no different.

      1. DMC*

        The message I got from at least the first couple of points Employment Lawyer made is there are lots of things employers have a legal right to do that they don’t do if they want to be a good employer. Likewise, there are lots of legal rights employees have that they don’t always have to push the envelope on if they want to have a harmonious relationship with their employer. Those in the trenches of employment law know that not all employers are evil, and not all employees are being taken advantage of. Sometimes it is that way. Sometimes it’s the other way. Mostly it’s lawyers who win in the end when there’s contention between the two. Both sides are left basically tired, beat up, and unhappy at the end of it all. There are good ways to go about protecting one’s rights and then there are ways that are just guaranteed to make the whole thing a lot more volatile than it otherwise needs to be.

        1. Chameleon*

          Maybe, but the right to discuss pay is *not* one of them, for all the very good reasons discussed in this thread.

      2. neverjaunty*

        Yes, this. I was especially baffled by “unless you are covered by the NLRB”. Uh, yes, or applicable state laws, which vary from state to state, and which may offer additional or stronger protections above and beyond what the NLRB offers – for example, as previously mentioned, California’s Labor Code explicitly prevents employers from banning salary discussions.

    3. Marvel*

      Gotta say, if I needed an employment lawyer… you wouldn’t be my first pick. “Nobody will hire you if they find out”? Crappy scare tactic is crappy (and also untrue).

    4. Observer*

      You do realize that you are advising clients to treat a perfectly legal behavior – which they are NOT legally allowed to punish – as the next best thing to a fireable offense. Do you really think that your clients are not gong to go over the legal line? Quite likely even if they don’t they will get sued, because employers who act like this do tend to get sued and defending these suits tends to be expensive.

      What exactly is the problem with someone who knows their rights and exercises them? The only I can think of is that such people make it harder for employers to abuse their employees.

      1. neverjaunty*

        Actually, yes, it is not uncommon for employer-side lawyers to advise such things.

        1. Observer*

          I know that it’s common. But, it does make a law suit far more likely. And it does mean that clients are more likely to go over the legal line, because they are going so, so close to it already. And, just because something is common does not mean that there is a good justification for it.

    5. Not So NewReader*

      I am sorry you won’t hire anyone who stands up for workers’ rights. You probably would not hire me and this is okay.
      We have a choice to lift people up or to hold them down. It’s a choice everyone of us makes every day.

      That said…

      OP, I do agree with EL in that most actions have consequences. Know what you have to lose and go into it with eyes wide open. I belonged to a union for a while and I met a few union people. We got to discussing workers’ rights and such and the union people all agreed on one thing: the people who start to unionize a company all end up fired/terminated. It’s illegal, but the patterns are clear. I tried to warn a person in my life. This person when quite a while working on building a union shop. And sure enough, this person got fired. Legal? hell no. Did person decide to fight it? no. This person saw what happened to people who fought the firing and stayed on. They found new levels of hell on earth. Not exaggerating it was mind-bending what was done to them. So the person in my story moved on to another company.

      Granted, you are not trying to unionize. But it would be wrong of me not to say, “eyes wide open here”. Understand that for some actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. I disagree with EL in statements involving the rules of thumb “always” or “never”. Very seldom do things “always” go a certain way and there are times when “never” means “this will change”. If you do this AND if word goes around there will be people who won’t hire you but there will also be people who will hire you in a heart beat.

      Maybe I am too practical but my thought is to pick a goal, know what success in this situation looks like to you. Then carefully line up the steps to meet your goal. The key here is know where you want this to land, know the outcome you are seeking. If people are informed of their legal rights, is that enough? Or are you looking for people to be actively involved in the discussion? Or are you looking for management to change it’s line? Know what it is that you are aiming for, then proceed.

    6. Jeanne*

      I don’t understand what you mean by “rights boundary.” Most of us are not screaming salary from the rooftops. Most employees don’t spend much time discussing salary but I find being warned about it makes me more curious that there are issues they hope I don’t learn about. In this case, showing a pay stub to a coworker and asking what a tax means doesn’t seem very boundary pushing. I completely understand why OP now wants to make waves.

      1. Mookie*

        Uppity people who are too loud about knowing their rights, is how I read that. Using a loaded term like “boundary” implies that the uppity people are doing something shameful and dangerous.

  25. Interested Ingrid*

    Does this apply to bonuses as well? Not that I was intending to share anyways, but my boss told me we shouldn’t discuss our year end bonus this yr.

    1. Evie*

      I was wondering that too. At my job we gave bonuses a few years ago but it wasn’t by a percentage but by the very thin line of job hierarchy basically and full time vs part time. We aren’t people not to say how much they got because not everyone got the same amount.

    2. Mike C.*

      Answered below, but yes. It’s rolled up in the idea that employees have the right to discuss working conditions with each other.

  26. Former Retail Manager*

    While the OP’s proposed potential actions are very noble, quite frankly, I think it will all be for nothing. The retail industry and widely known to have low wages across the board at all levels, including management, and your stand isn’t likely to change that. Retail managers typically have a pay range for each position, think $8.50 to $9.25 for an associate and they can pay anything within that range, but typically nothing above without district manager or higher approval, which I assure you, never happens. As for the disparity in pay, without knowing how large the disparity is, it’s hard to say if it might really indicate discrimination? Is the discrepancy 50 cents? You’re not likely to gain much traction on that argument as there could be any number of reasons that someone is paid slightly more (more experience, bilingual, a specific skill, etc) and all of those reasons are easily defendable. Now if it’s a huge difference like $3 an hour starting pay for two employees with the exact same qualifications, you might have a better case, but I don’t see such a wide disparity being likely in retail. Virtually all of my employees were within $1 of each other, except the ones that had been around for years.

    Best of luck in your future endeavors!

    1. Jeanne*

      But that’s why I don’t understand why they’re so opposed to the discussions. If all cashiers start at $8.25 and can get up to $9.00, what is the big deal? Let them talk.

  27. BabyAttorney*

    It should be noted that there is a difference with government contractors. There was an executive order that does not allow adverse employment actions based on an employee or potebtial employee discussing wages and salary not too terribly long ago I believe. Of course, YMMV and talk to a lawyer if you think this applies to you ;)

  28. MsChanandlerBong*

    When I worked in the HR field, my boss told me to write a memo forbidding employees from sharing their pay information with each other. I refused to do it and explained the legalities. He just did it himself. Is it any surprise I only worked there for two months?

    1. Jeanne*

      I’ve never had an employer who didn’t say not to discuss salary. They didn’t write it as an order though.

  29. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.*

    I worked for many years for state & local government agencies, and salaries were public information. The places I worked released the information by job title, not by name, but in a small department it was easy to match the two. And most of the differences were either because of time in grade, or differences between grades based on education (high school diploma v. college degree) so it was obvious how to earn as much as a higher-earning colleague.

    When I moved over to the private sector, it took a bit of getting used to that salaries are secret. If I know that Jane earns more than I do because (reasons), then I can accept it and know what I have to do to get to her salary level.

  30. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.*

    I can’t seem to find an answer on the Labor Dept website to this, so am hoping that someone here knows: Does the law apply to wage & salary information only, or does it also apply to bonuses? Thanks!

    1. K130*

      This was my question too, as our boss reiterates at annual reviews that ratings (to which bonuses are tied) are confidential. I always thought that was a little shady. But since the rules don’t apply to government employees, I guess they get to say that.

  31. Jules*

    For companies with government contracts. The Fair Pay act came in play mid-January this year. This law prohibits employers from stopping people talking about pay. People being employees and future employees, I.e. if a candidate is offered a job and he shared that information on his fb or Twitter, his offer cannot be revoked. Unless the employee’s role includes access to pay privileged information, you can talk about pay to co-workers, on social media or take out a billboard ad. I joke I joke…

  32. Anny*

    “The law doesn’t apply to government employees, agricultural laborers, domestic workers in a home, people employed by a parent or spouse, or independent contractors.”

    That seems pretty unfair to people in those categories of work.

  33. Tara*

    This is one of those issues that really gets under my skin. When I was promoted last year I was offered a salary that was rescinded within 3 weeks of starting my new role. I was told that the salary I was offered was way out of the company ballpark and a whole bunch of other bs excuses but the part that really got me was when I was called into a meeting with the VP of HR and the CAO of the company, I was quietly told that my discussion of my salary with my coworkers was forbidden and I was essentially verbally reprimanded for discussing my promotions and payraise…I debated taking legal steps against my company but didn’t have any other position lined up and didn’t want to be labeled a trouble maker for future employment. I have however lost all faith in the ethics and trust of my current company and am still trying to leave 7 months later!

Comments are closed.