Your Right To Discuss Pay

I wrote this specific post about 8 months ago. It made some people nervous, as employers tend to have the balance of power and when people are told something over and over, it becomes difficult to openly learn about the issue and discuss it. It’s empowering for both employer and employee to know the law and learn how to keep a business healthy.

I’m not talking about my employer  and also not talking about anyone I know personally. This is a PSA-style something-most-people-don’t-understand post. Yes, this is a Right-To-Work state, which doesn’t affect the content of what I am posting. Anyone can be fired legally or illegally, for reasons both legal and illegal, which is also not the focus of this post. And one more: it is almost never worth it to irritate your employer, even if you are ‘right.’

How much do you earn at your job? Interestingly, I’m finding that many people aren’t aware that their employers generally *can’t prohibit them from talking about their benefits, including wages.

I know that many of you are saying “But my employer has a policy that says I can’t.” It’s likely not legal, and hasn’t been for a long time. You can investigate it, if you want.

There are exceptions, of course, and you should be aware of how you fall in the category. In general, if you work a traditional job for a private employer, aren’t a contract employee, aren’t a supervisor, and don’t work for the government, you can talk about how much you’re paid until your jaw gets sore.

That’s the majority of us.

You can go to the National Labor Relations Board website at: NLRB Website 

(The NLRB is an independent federal agency that is often overlooked, especially in states where unions don’t tend to have much influence.)

If you’ve been warned, fired, or told you can’t discuss your wages with others, call the NLRB and use their website to get educated. Most of us have the right to discuss our wages if we choose to do so. Much of the problem arises when employers or their managers fail to understand the law, even with good intentions.

If you are a good employee, you will of course not waste your employer’s time talking instead of working. Modern companies know better than to pay less for any reason other than value and merit. At least I think they do. You choose to work for the wage your employer offers. Likewise, what your employer chooses to pay you is for you to decide to disclose to another person. Just as your employer is free to determine prevailing wage, you are free to talk about it. Your employer is paying you a combination of what you are worth, what it can afford, and according to its own policies. Assuming other variables aren’t present, employees generally are being compensated in a similar manner within the same company, based on common criteria. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Your employer has the right to determine your wage and you have the right to decline that wage or not. Discussion of wages is a different topic and unrelated to that employer’s right to determine pay under the law.

While all of the above is true, I don’t recommend you run around with a banner with a picture of yourself shouting how much you make while giving the finger. It’s not smart. Many of our problems with our employers stem from the inability to honestly bring questions to them and see that they are addressed – and that no one punishes the messenger for voicing concerns or questions.

Hillary Clinton got some attention for getting the law wrong. Here’s a link to the Politifact article detailing what happened: Clinton Gets Pay Discussion Law Wrong

Studies have shown that discussion of pay helps a company for long-term stability. It helps avoid allegations of unfairness, eliminates accusations of unequal pay or glass ceilings, and demonstrates openness from employers toward employees. It builds trust among employees and with the employer.

A good employer knows that all of the above is true and works actively to build trust with employees. A cornerstone of this kind of trust is centered on both compliance and embracing employee involvement, even when the traditional view is one of prohibition. One myth employers tend to believe is that employees who know what their counterparts earn are less flexible and efficient. Great employers don’t even worry themselves with these considerations: they don’t discriminate unlawfully and do their best to have consistent policies. That’s why you don’t have innumerable news stories each week about employees filing complaints. Most employers are too busy running their businesses without worrying about needless arguments about pay.

I generally don’t talk about where I work on social media and I don’t complain about what I earn – because for requiring only a HS education, I have good pay and benefits as an employee. I choose to work for the wage I’m given and it’s a fair wage for my job and hours. I’m not concerned that my employer is going to see this and be upset with me. (And not just because an ‘employer’ is only a collective of people.) I don’t run the halls challenging people with how much I earn or flaunting my knowledge or chanting ‘nana nana boo-boo.’ I would like everyone I work with to make at least as much as me if they are doing the same job, even those with less seniority. I’m weird like that. Qualifications and merit rule.

If your employer has a policy against pay discussion, be human about it. Ask someone you trust at your company if they are sure it is legal. Give them a chance to investigate. All of the people doing jobs have a massive number of laws and rules to juggle. Some of the most obvious ones are most often overlooked. Don’t jump to the conclusion that your employer is inhibiting pay discussion out of a nefarious motive – it might be simple ignorance. If your employer gets angry at you for even asking about the law, chances are that you are working for an employer who isn’t interested in complying with the law, which is another discussion entirely.

You’ll be surprised how often many employers tell their workers they can’t discuss wages – even though it is illegal for most of them to do so.

In my years working, I’ve encountered many people who simply don’t understand the law.


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