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As far as taboo topics of conversation go, talking about how much you earn is probably near the top. But the latest research suggests knowing how much your co-workers are paid benefits not just employees, but workplaces, too. The reason? Most people assume they’re being underpaid, and feel resentful about it.
But talking about pay – provided it’s not forbidden under your contract – can give you a better idea of where you stand. And mounting evidence suggests that if we want to close the gender pay gap, the first step is finding out what the guy doing the same job as you is making. Former social worker Laura MacLeod is an employee relations specialist and HR consultant. We spoke to her about how best to approach the issue. Here are seven tips to delicately handling the issue.
MacLeod is a big believer in transparency in the workplace – and that extends to pay. “Money is a reality of life and to pretend it doesn’t matter – ‘We’re here because we believe in the mission!’ – is ridiculous. We can be invested in our careers and be aware and confident that we are being paid market value.” But, says MacLeod, you need to do your research. Find out what the market rate is before asking any questions.
If it’s someone you’re close to, it’s fine to ask if you can have a chat over coffee or after-work drinks – but confidentiality needs to be stated upfront. “Co-workers will respond to your authentic need and gratitude,” said MacLeod. It’s important to get to the point and be honest about why you want to chat but there’s no need to feel guilty for seeking out the information. “Let them know you have a strong reason for asking for the info – which you do – and you have no plans to discuss with anyone.”
MacLeod recommends avoiding the discussion with people who you don’t know well and those who appear to be a little too close to management. “They could be problematic in keeping your questions confidential,” said Macleod.
Sasha, 40, left her job as a manager for a large public relations firm in June this year after discovering the person working under her was earning $48,000 more. “I was on $110,000 plus Super, which was fine” admitted Sasha. “But I knew something was amiss because, even though I was her direct report, she managed to wiggle out of a lot of tasks I asked her to do. It was obvious she did not see me as her boss.” Sasha set up a meeting with her subordinate, and soon found out the truth. “We spoke about her contract, and I explained that I’d like her to prioritise my requests – she refused. It was then that I asked her about pay” said Sasha. “I thought her pay might be disincentivizing her. I was wrong! It was shocking at first, but it did explain her attitude.”
“That one is extreme” said MacLeod. “But it happens – someone’s friend or former partner negotiated pay when the company was flush, and now that things are tight, contract terms have changed.”
“A good friend was looking pleased with himself after a meeting one day so I asked him why he was so happy” said Paul, 34, an advertising executive. “He told me he got a raise – he said it was 15 per cent [of his wage]. So I went to HR and asked, as politely as I could, when I’d be up for one. That’s when the HR rep told me, I was the highest earner on the floor.” The news was motivating for Paul. “Before then, I used to wonder why I was getting plenty of accolades about my performance but no pay increase – this put my mind at rest.”
The most important thing is to make sure you have all the facts – especially if that person is a different gender to you. “Ask yourself, does this person have more experience than you? Do they go above and beyond? Have they been with the company longer? Do they take on higher tasks when upper management is out?” said MacLeod. Only then should you go to your manager. Sasha did go to management, but was told there was a wage freeze. “I’m sure there was” she said. “But the way that management just sort of shrugged it off… I knew the underlying dynamics wouldn’t change, so I left.”
MacLeod recommends approaching it as a question rather than a problem. “Approach your manager and smile. Remember: you’re looking to improve, so say something like, ‘I feel my work and commitment is on the same level as Dave’s. If there’s somewhere I can improve, I’d like to know.’ This takes the sting and accusation out of it. You’re asking your boss to provide an explanation without putting them on the defensive. If they say no, don’t give up. “Keep at it patiently” said MacLeod. “If you feel you haven’t been given an adequate explanation, say that. If at some point you feel you need to go higher or to HR to resolve, tell your boss. Don’t override without warning anyone – it’s the best way to alienate and burn bridges.”
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