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Money Talks: Discussing Wages in the Workplace

It’s a well known rule: you don’t talk about salary, you don’t compare paychecks, you don’t discuss perks with your coworkers, and it's all wrong.

Don't talk about money. Period.

We're taught that it's rude and boastful and we just shouldn't do it. But the old adage which has remained taboo at the dinner table has followed us into work, and it's wreaking havoc.

I was a twenty-one year old college graduate with a few years of work experience in food service when I landed a job as a prep cook at a brand new restaurant. Since I’d worked my way up to supervisor in my last position, I felt comfortable negotiating for $13 per hour. I was talked down to $12 with the promise of a $1 raise after a month if I demonstrated that my work ethic matched my resume. In whispers, I was told that this was a deal drafted just for me and I shouldn't tell my coworkers. That was easy. After all, society had made the rules were clear: it's rude to talk about money. Only idiots go around bragging about how much they make.

Do you see where this is going?

One month later, the head chef and sous chef pulled everyone off the line just before we opened the restaurant for lunch service. They gathered us in the early morning for an impromptu meeting where they lambasted employees for ‘pestering them about raises.' As it turned out, a whole bunch of us had been fooled into taking jobs at a lower rate and the promised raises were not coming. We were told to stop asking about them. And, if any of us had a problem with that, we were welcome to leave.

Of course, the bosses knew not everyone had the privilege of walking out at a moment's notice. They knew that those of us who planned to leave eventually would still have to stay, trapped and at their mercy, for however long it took to find a new job.

It was a harsh and shocking revelation. Resentment was at an all time high as morale plummeted.

After a year, the topic of raises came up again and, this time, each of us was called into a back room, away from prying eyes and listening ears. There, we were each quoted a number. I was to receive my $1 raise under the lofty condition that I not disclose the amount with any of my coworkers for any reason. I could be fired for failure to comply. It was clearly outlined in the employee handbook.

Yeah-yeah, I thought. I know the drill. I just want my money.

But, as it turns out, I didn't know anything. I had no idea I was well within my rights to discuss my wages with my coworkers, and it was in all of our best interests considering how poorly the topic of compensation had been handled in the first place.

With a few exceptions, it is your legal right and mine to discuss wages with coworkers. Even if a manager says you can’t. Even if it’s prohibited in a workplace policy handbook. Read on if you want to learn your rights and responsibilities as both an employee and an employer, and be smarter than I was when I submitted to this unjust treatment.

Prohibiting Employees From Discussing Wages Is (Often) Illegal

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects an employee’s right to unionize and to discuss wages.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which enforces the NLRA, determined that wages are a key aspect of the transactional work relationship, and the ability for employees to discuss wages facilitates their ability to organize, negotiate, and campaign for mutual aid or protection. In other words, employees make better advocates for themselves and their interests when they possess all of the relevant information they need to participate in discussions.

Imagine your boss offers you a promotion. You’re granted a more senior title, you have more responsibilities in the workplace, and you’re expected to be available on weekdays and holidays, but your boss doesn’t mention a raise. Obviously, you’ll want to negotiate for a salary that better reflects your contributions to the workplace but how would you know how much to ask for? Ask for too much and you risk appearing clueless; ask for too little and you’re selling yourself short. Benchmarks and national averages are a good place to start but they don’t tell you specifics about your workplace. Who would know better than your coworkers who may share your experience, work duties, or educational background? An employee who engages in information-gathering and collaborating with others has a higher chance of earning fair pay and living wages. Since the NLRA was enacted to protect the welfare of both employers and employees, it makes sense why the act would protect the employees’ ability to advocate for themselves.

Why Do Employers Prohibit Wage Discussions

Do employers not want their employees to earn living wages? Are they hiding something by prohibiting these vital discussions? What’s the story?

Sometimes, the answer is as nefarious as it seems. Wage secrecy can hide unscrupulous workplace practices, like those exhibited at my former job, or even wage discrimination. Wage discrimination is when employers pay an employee less than their counterparts on the basis of that employee’s age, gender, race, or religion, a practice which violates Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act.

It has also been said that employers seek to keep wages secret to avoid undue tension between employees. Differences in education level, time within the company, and additional training can cause disparities among employees performing similar job duties and this is not discrimination. If employees don’t understand how those differences can impact their compensation, tension and resentment can disrupt the workplace needlessly.

Whatever the reason may be, employers are not justified or, in most cases, legally supported in prohibiting employees from sharing how much money they earn if an employee chooses to do so. There is no good reason for gag orders. Wage discrimination is criminal and abhorrent, and the excuse that unequal compensation could lead to tension in the workplace is a poor one. Comprehensive policies on compensation and growth should be part of every employee handbook and should be referenced during pay negotiations, revisited regularly for maintenance, and adjusted for inflation.

Combined with the trend toward wage transparency and actual fair compensation, this would reduce the amount of confusion and resentment present in the workplace when employees share information about their wages.

How Can Employers and Employees Move Forward?

Employers who wish to avoid high turnover rates and a hostile work environment as a result of wage-based misunderstandings must make drafting compensation policies that outline standard procedures a priority. It’ll be much less trouble to design a policy than to face potential repercussions of suppressing employees’ legal rights in a misguided attempt to keep the peace.

For employees, while there is no universal ‘right way’ to react to a violation, the wrong thing to do is accept it as normal or expected. If changing jobs or having a frank discussion with a manager or human resources professional doesn’t sound appealing, employees covered by the NLRB who suspect they have been the target of unlawful suppression, threats, retaliation, or termination due to discussing their wages with coworkers are encouraged to look into filing a charge with the NLRB.

The gap between productivity and pay has grown over the past forty years - meaning, on average, we’re working harder but that increased efficiency isn’t reflected in employee compensation. One thing we can do to help close this gap is boost worker power. Let’s put an end to scare tactics and gag orders. Learn more about the protections offered by the National Labor Relations Board and safeguard your rights.

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