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Dilemma of the Month: Using a Coworker’s Salary as Leverage

Back Q&A Nov 19, 2019 By Suzanne Lucas

I just found out a coworker is making more than I am, even though I have been here longer. How can I bring this up to my manager without giving away how I found out? Can I use this as leverage for a raise?

Well, the first question is, how did you find out?

Did you hack into the human resources system and download everyone’s salary? Did you sneak into your boss’s office when she ran to the ladies room and looked at her sent emails to find the offer letter for your coworker? If that is how you found out, then, yeah, you don’t want to bring that up. 

But if you were talking with your coworker, and he said, “Ugh, I’m so disappointed in my annual raise. I thought for sure this would bring me to $80,000, but I’m stuck here at $78,000,” then there’s no reason not to bring it up.

Related: How to Handle Low-Salary Expectations

Related: Adjusting Employee Compensation

OK, there’s no legal reason not to bring it up. As long as you are nonmanagement employees, the National Labor Relations Act protects your right to discuss working conditions with your coworkers, and that includes salaries.

The California Equal Pay Act expands on these rights and gives you even more protection to talk about wages. It also limits the reasons people performing “substantially similar” duties can have different salaries. According to the Department of Industrial Relations’ frequently asked questions page on the Equal Pay Act, it limits differences to:

  • seniority;
     
  • merit;
     
  • a system that measures production; 
     
  • a “bona fide factor other than sex, race, or ethnicity.”

That last one can be a bit tricky, but, thankfully, California has given some examples that include education, training and experience. The differences aren’t limited to those three factors, but you’d probably be hard-pressed to find something different that a court would say was a “bona fide factor.” 

Armed with this information, it’s time to talk with your boss. Here’s an opening statement I find quite helpful.

“John told me he’s earning $78,000 a year, and I’m earning $73,000. We have the same title and responsibilities, and I’ve been here longer. How do I get my salary up to the same level?”

Here’s why I like this method. 

  • There’s no mystery about how you learned the information. 
     
  • You point out the relevant facts.
     
  • You use a “we” statement. This helps your manager feel like you’re on the same team. This is a problem that “we” can solve. 

There are some pitfalls to this method. If your boss doesn’t know it’s illegal to prohibit salary discussions, she might get mad at John. (She may know and still get mad — some people are jerks.) 

John may not be pleased that you violated his privacy by talking about this. It’s absolutely your right to talk, and you should use the information unless John said, “I’ll tell you my salary if you promise to never use this information in any way, shape or form.” But even if you didn’t have that discussion, it’s polite to give John a head’s up; remind him federal and state laws protect him too.

This method does not guarantee a raise and an apology. You may find out there is an excellent reason for the salary discrepancy. John could have a master’s degree to your bachelor’s degree. John could have more experience (albeit, gained at another organization). John could be a star performer. Those things are fine, although depressing.

It’s not OK if it’s because John is male and you’re female, or because John is 30, and you’re 52. Your manager isn’t likely to say that directly, but if you feel that could be a factor, you can add that: “Because I’ve been here longer, and we have similar backgrounds and responsibilities, it looks like gender is the main difference. We really need to get this fixed.” Yes, that is a subtle threat, but it gives your boss a way to, again, act like you’re on the same team.

Regardless of the result of the conversation, document it in an email and send it to your boss confirming that you had this discussion. Copy your home email address so that you have a dated record that this discussion took place.

In a perfect world, you would walk out of this discussion with a raise. (Of course, in an ideal world, you would have very similar salaries.) In the real world, your boss probably won’t get it fixed until the next salary increase cycle. And if it doesn’t happen by then, it’s time to either escalate the issue or find a new job. 

Salary discrepancies happen, and some are just bad luck, especially if one of you is an internal transfer. They aren’t all sinister. So be positive, ask for a raise, and good luck! 

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