Can You Be Fired for Discussing Your Salary?

Business, Money, Privacy, Rights

money on a tableIf there is one question that is guaranteed to cause an awkward pause and the curling of toes, it has to be: “How much did you make last year?”

For many people, discussing finances and income with friends and colleagues is seriously taboo, as evidenced by the number of etiquette columns devoted to the topic (for example). This may not apply as much to government and union employees, whose salaries are a matter of public record or based on seniority, because people tend to know what everyone else is making.

The private sector is another story.

Many businesses and corporations have gone so far as to establish rules forbidding employees from discussing their wages, on pain of disciplinary action.

It turns out that in most cases these regulations are actually against the law.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled on many occasions that businesses and corporations cannot legally prevent employees from sharing their salaries or the salaries of their co-workers. In most cases, employers are not required to publicize the wages of their employees, but neither can they bar them from giving that information to each other or the media. When disgruntled employees bring these regulations to the attention of the NLRB, the employer is required to remove the language from their employee manuals. (This doesn’t apply to managers, supervisors and other employees not under the jurisdiction of the NLRB.)

Some states, such as Colorado and California, have gone a step further. They have passed laws singling out wage discussion as a “protected activity,” just like campaigning for politicians or caring for a sick relative. In these states, no employee (not even managers) can be fired for talking about their salaries.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Many human resource experts advocate a don’t-ask-don’t tell policy when it comes to salaries because they believe that knowing creates discontent, jealousy and low morale in the office. Which, as others point out, are fairly natural reactions to finding out that a co-worker with less experience and education is earning more money.

And some people think that salaries, like health records and bedroom proclivities, are simply nobody else’s business and should be kept private for that reason alone.

But maybe you should anyway.

VirginiaDavisFor women and people of color—and especially for women of color—the glass ceiling is alive and well in the United States.

Even though women comprise more than half of the country’s workforce, according to this article they are paid only 77 cents for every dollar that men make.

Private companies are allowed to pay their employees whatever they want, and if that information is kept private, how are women and minorities to know if they are systematically being paid less than their white male counterparts?

Pay discrimination may not even be intentional or systematic. After all, salaries and raises are often based on a person’s negotiation skills more than on job performance.

Studies have shown that men and women tend to negotiate differently and that women are less likely to ask for raises. A study at Carnegie Mellon University showed female and male subjects asking for raises using the same words, posture and tone of voice. The females were nearly always viewed as unlikable and uncooperative—and the men nearly always received their (hypothetical) raise.

The study showed that managers’ differing expectations of their female and male employees is deeply psychological and not necessarily the result of a conscious belief that women deserve to be paid less than men. So experts suggest that women ask for raises in a cooperative way and refrain from using certain phrases, such as “I feel I deserve a raise.”

Advocates for minority workers suggest that, in order to compete for raises and promotions, they must strive to be better than, not equal to, their white co-workers.

Somehow, telling women to negotiate via beating around the bush and holding people of color to higher standards doesn’t seem like a very fair solution.

Maybe a more clear-cut way to shatter the glass ceiling would be for everyone to become open about their salaries. If managers were to assume that salaries aren’t kept private, they may strive to be more consistent.

At the very least, people will know when to start looking for a new job.