Many people who are trying to figure out whether they've
been the victim of discrimination miss an obvious way to find out how much
coworkers are making: asking them. Some employers try to prevent this by
putting in handbooks or contracts a provision prohibiting salary discussions
among coworkers. Those employers are, for the most part, breaking the law.
If you work for a non-government employer and aren't a supervisor or
management, you likely have the absolute right to discuss your salary, benefits
and other working conditions with your coworkers.
Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in concerted
activity to improve working conditions. That means you can discuss pay and
benefits with coworkers and the employer is not allowed to punish you for doing
Before you defy management directives and start discreetly asking trusted
coworkers to exchange salary information, you should make sure you aren't
exempt from this law. While the vast majority of non-government employers are
covered, some are exempt.
Independent contractors and supervisors are exempt. But many people classified
as contractors are misclassified and are really employees. You may be protected
even if you think you aren't.
Even if you're allowed by law to discuss pay with coworkers, I still suggest
using some sense. Some people are offended if you ask about money. Make sure
you trust the person and have a good idea that they won't mind. If it's someone
you suspect is also underpaid, you might convince them to talk to you with some
evidence, such as telling them that you know John Smith and Jim Doe make more
than you for the same work, but you are wondering if other women in the company
are also underpaid for the same work. Another time to ask is when someone is
leaving. They may mind less if they're on their way out the door.
What you don't want to do is sneak into HR and look at their payroll records,
hack the payroll company computers, or put a tape recorder in someone's office
hoping to catch them in salary discussions. Those tactics are illegal. You not
only will be fired if you're caught - you might go to jail.
If your company has an illegal policy or contract saying you can't discuss
salary with coworkers, one option is to report them to the NLRB. Cases
saying these prohibitions are illegal have been around way before the
current issue arose about the current NLRB's makeup, so the fact that these
policies are illegal won't change, no matter how optimistic employer
organizations get. Even if you haven't been fired based on an illegal policy,
you can file a complaint and NLRB may force your employer to change their evil
If you think you're the victim of discrimination, one way to prove it is to
prove you're paid less than others in a different category than you. Don't
write off the easiest way to find out if you're paid unfairly. Go ahead. Take a
coworker to lunch. Ask. You might be surprised by what you find out.
See more employment law posts on Donna
Ballman's blog, Screw You Guys, I'm Going Home.
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