Many people falsely believe that discussing how much you make with your coworkers is prohibited.
This allows pay differentials between privileged and marginalized people doing the same work to continue unchecked.
Pay transparency and equity are crucial because in our society, our ability to survive and thrive depends on how we’re compensated by our jobs.
Corporate and political elites expected the loosening of COVID restrictions and termination of federal unemployment benefits would drive workers back to their jobs (Forbes). Instead, three out of four workers are actively considering leaving their jobs for a different firm or a new industry entirely (Business Insider). The “Great Resignation” is throwing a spotlight on pay differentials between different types of work (Harvard Business Review). But discrepancies in pay within a particular company can be drastic as well, with people of color, women, and sexual and gender minorities often receiving less compensation than colleagues performing equivalent work. One simple antidote is discussing your salary with coworkers. Another is advocating for policies that encourage pay transparency and equity where you work.
Many people believe that discussing your wage or salary with your coworkers is prohibited. Companies sometimes put “pay secrecy” language in employee handbooks to discourage such conversations (NPR). Other workers believe that comparing salaries is actually against the law (Monster).
In reality, the opposite is true: U.S. workers are legally allowed to discuss their working conditions, including salaries and compensation, with coworkers. Though labor law is often stacked against workers, pay secrecy policies are a violation of the National Labor Relations Act, federal law since the 1930s.
The NLRA regulates the rights of American workers to organize collectively for better working conditions, whether as part of a formal labor union or not. It reads, in part:
“Employees shall have the right to self-organization… and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” (NLRB).
The National Labor Relations Board protects off-the-clock salary discussions as “concerted activity” (NPR). If you face retaliation for talking about your salary with two or more coworkers, you can file an Unfair Labor Practice charge against your employer (FLRA).
Though open publication of pay scales for various positions is an almost universal feature of union contracts, it’s a rarity in non-union workplaces. The pervasive culture of pay secrecy begs the question: what are employers trying to hide?
In the United States, Latinas make 59% of what white men do. Hidden pay discrepancies often relate to such factors as race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or religion. Discrimination against such “protected classes” is also illegal in the U.S. — a good reason for employers in violation to discourage discussions about compensation among their employees.
The connection between pay secrecy and discrimination is no conspiracy theory. The European Commission advised EU member states to pass laws allowing employees to ask about pay levels at the company they work for. The hope is that such transparency will help close the gender pay gap (The Conversation). President Obama likewise agreed, declaring that “pay secrecy fosters discrimination” (NPR).
You can start today by openly sharing your salary with coworkers and asking them to reciprocate. You can ask why discrepancies in wages exist and demand that the salaries for each position be publicly available. If you’re in a management position, you may be able to institute such policies yourself. Breaking a culture of secrecy is hard. Supporting your coworkers, even if you may have nothing to gain yourself, can be even harder. But there is no justification for policies that invite favoritism, discrimination, and abuse.
This conversation doesn’t address the fact that people of color are often stuck in less desirable and less lucrative positions within firms. Nor does it account for the stark pay differences between upper managers (who are disproportionately white) and their employees. Discussing both of these issues is also incredibly important, especially when information about executive compensation at publicly traded private firms (Salary) and nonprofits (ProPublica) is publicly available.
The taboo around pay transparency is strong, but it’s a necessary conversation we should push ourselves to have. The fight for racial and gender justice doesn’t stop at your workplace’s doors. And crying out for justice on the weekends but remaining silent as soon as your own career is at stake is fairweather allyship at best. Those who are hesitant would do well to remember the refrain of an old union song taken up by Black Lives Matter protestors in recent years: “Which side are you on?” (STL Today)
Tell your coworkers how much you make at work and encourage them to do the same. Support coworkers from marginalized backgrounds in demanding equal pay.
Insist that your company publicly announces the minimum and maximum pay for each position. If you’re in management, take action to institute this change yourself.
Consider: How can you support your coworkers from marginalized backgrounds, whether you share their identities or not? How can just workplace policies benefit people from marginalized backgrounds, even if they aren’t explicitly targeted at those communities? What would it take for your workplace to be equitable for the employees who make it run?