The problem is clear: disparities in pay based on race and gender still exist. The solution is seemingly clear as well: create more transparency around pay and discriminatory pay practices should eventually disappear. The law even supports employees in their search for transparency by providing legal protection for employees who inquire about, discuss, and compare compensation.
In Illinois, it is unlawful under the Equal Pay Act of 2003 to “discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any individual for inquiring about, disclosing, comparing, or otherwise discussing the employee’s wages or the wages of any other employee, or aiding or encouraging any person to exercise his or her rights under [the] Act” (820 ILCS § 112/10(b)). On the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act provides protection for most employees, with few exceptions, allowing them to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The National Labor Relations Board has interpreted this provision to protect employees from many employers’ written policies prohibiting employees from talking about pay.
If we have a problem and we have a legally-backed solution, then why aren’t wage gaps closing? For one, we as a society tiptoe around the topic of money. We speculate about how much others are making based on where they live, what car they drive, what they do in their spare time, and a variety of other factors. It’s difficult to engage in compensation-related conversations when money is a taboo topic, even outside of the workplace. There is no “one size fits all” approach to talking about one’s earnings because every employment relationship looks different. If employees are interested in shifting these norms, here are some steps they can take to be more proactive in encouraging pay transparency:
- Research your industry. Gather information on pay ranges in your industry to provide a launching point for these conversations. A quick internet search can provide survey data on compensation ranges in various industries, roles, and geographic areas. Start with a website like glassdoor.com, salary.com, indeed.com, or look to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, which provides salary data by field.
- Find out what factors your employer is using to determine your compensation. A productive and comprehensive conversation about compensation is likely to encompass far more than just a comparison of numbers. Depending on the field, compensation could be determined by education level, experience, hours worked, commissions, opportunities for bonuses, and a range of other factors.
- Inquire about access to opportunities that can maximize income. A discrepancy in pay may be the result of a discrepancy in workplace opportunities, so raising this topic can be one way to expand the breadth of conversations with co-workers. You might sound them out on opportunities for bonuses, overtime hours, special projects, and other avenues that can lead to increased compensation. This conversation could also potentially expose discriminatory practices that wouldn’t otherwise be visible. Discussing workplace opportunities is a good place to start if you don’t feel comfortable asking colleagues for salary information in a more direct way.
- Have the tough conversations. Pay is often assumed to reflect performance, a topic that can make workers self-conscious and lead them to censor conversations about money, or to raise the issue in a very delicate and particular way. If you discover you are making less than your co-worker, you might feel inadequate. If you find out you are making more, you might avoid telling anyone for fear that it will sound like gloating, or appear that you are benefiting from special treatment. However, it is important for employees on all ends of the pay spectrum to speak openly and honestly to create transparency.
So, what might make these conversations easier? Have these conversations in an appropriate, (and if possible) casual setting. Choose a time and place in which these conversations will not interfere with job performance or productivity. Many employees avoid discussing pay because they fear their employer will retaliate if they “stir the pot.” Taking these conversations outside of the workplace is one way to ensure that employers cannot conflate discussing pay with reduced performance or inappropriate conduct, thereby providing an employer with a reason to take an adverse employment action.
Talk with coworkers with whom you’ve already built a rapport and approach the conversation in a way that lets them know you are seeking information that may be mutually beneficial. Frame your inquiry as an evaluation of the organization’s pay practices as a whole to ensure that the workforce is being treated fairly.
So you find a discrepancy – now what? Take the information you have gleaned from your co-workers and talk to your employer. If your employer cannot show any justifiable reason for the discrepancy and shows no intention of eliminating discriminatory practices, it’s time to start looking for employment with an employer who will compensate you appropriately. Keep in mind these conversations between employers and employees are important even if the employee already has one foot out the door. These types of conversations will bring discrepancies to light and let the employer know that their workforce will not tolerate discriminatory practices.
Alternatively, if an employer can articulate why a pay discrepancy exists, ask them to work with you on a plan that will put you in the same position as those who are being paid more. Regardless of whether these tough conversations reveal unlawful pay practices, knowledge is power when it comes to compensation structures in an organization. Gaining the confidence to discuss money with your colleagues and your supervisors will ensure that you are being compensated according to your value, and help you plan for career advancement.