Discussing Pay With Coworkers: What Are My Rights?

Employees generally have the right to discuss their rates of pay with each other. Employer policies that prohibit these sorts of discussions violate federal law.

By , Attorney · Widener University Delaware Law School

Have you ever wondered if a co-worker makes more money than you? Or if you and your colleagues are being paid the same for doing equal work?

Many employees share the mistaken belief that it's illegal to discuss wages with co-workers. Sometimes this is because employers have "policies" prohibiting these sorts of discussions.

The fact is that in most cases your employer cannot legally prohibit or discipline you for discussing your salary. It's up to you, however, to determine whether it makes sense to discuss pay given your work situation.

Discussing Wages With Co-Workers Is Legal

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is a federal law that manages the relationship between employers and unions. It also regulates how employers treat individual employees when it comes to things like wages, working hours, and unfair labor practices. The purpose of the NLRA is to help employees seek better working conditions without fear of retaliation.

The Act specifically provides that employees have the right to engage in "concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." This sweeping authorization protects discussions about wages and salaries.

What Types of Communications are Protected?

The NLRA offers broad protection to nearly all forms of communication including face-to-face discussions, electronic messages, and social media posts. While your employer might limit how and when you use work equipment, such as a company computer, your right to discuss pay cannot be specifically prohibited.

There are many different reasons for discussing wages. Examples of protected communications include those that center on:

  • determining employee and managerial salaries
  • petitioning your employer for a joint benefit or pay increase
  • organizing or approaching a union with the goal of increasing wages
  • contacting the National Labor Relations Board regarding your salary and related rights, and
  • discussing wage-related policies, such as minimum wage or right-to-work laws.

Examples of things that your employer cannot do under the NLRA include:

  • limit or prohibit wage-related discussions
  • punish you because you discussed pay with co-workers
  • threaten or retaliate against you for discussing your salary, and
  • require you to request permission to discuss wages.

In sum, your employer is acting illegally if it takes adverse action against you or a co-worker for discussing pay or enacts a policy that directly or indirectly discourages or limits these types of discussions.

Restrictions on Right to Discuss Pay in the Workplace

There are some minor restrictions on your right to discuss pay. Generally, you cannot share a co-employee's salary with another party. This is true even if you hold a position within the company that grants you access to salary and payroll information. It also goes without saying that you cannot force human resources to provide you with the salaries of your co-workers.

Does it Make Sense to Talk Pay?

One of the downsides to discussing wages with co-employees is that you might not like what you hear, especially if the person at the next desk or in the office down the hall is making more money. Wide ranging discussions within the office about pay could also hurt company morale.

Another potential problem is that your co-worker might not be completely honest or, at the very least, could inadvertently fail to provide a full picture. A pay disparity, for example, might be the result of a legitimate reason, such as:

  • a bonus
  • overtime pay
  • specialized skills, or
  • greater work experience.

Before you open a can of worms and initiate wage-related discussion make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. If it's simply a matter of curiosity or an attempt to gauge your future, consider contacting your supervisor or human resources first. Your employer might be open to having a detailed discussion on how pay decisions are made and why some positions in the company that seem similar command different salaries.

What If Salaries at my Workplace Appear Unfair?

Depending on the specific situation, there are a number of laws that could be violated based on a company's pay scale, especially when there's evidence of an unfair disparity in wages. In general, an employer cannot discriminate when it comes to compensation on the basis of such things as age, disability, gender, pregnancy, race, religion, color, sex, and national origin.

Laws that could be implicated by illegal pay practices include the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the American With Disabilities Act (ADA), the Equal Pay Act (EPA), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

How to Research Industry Pay Rates

Before reaching out to co-employees or sitting down with your supervisor or a member of the human resources department, it makes sense to do your own research. A good start would be finding a reliable online salary database that provides a salary range for a comparable position at a similar company. This, however, could be easier said than done.

You could also reach out to people who moved on from your company. A former employee might be more inclined to have an open and honest discussion about your employer's pay scale and your future with the company, rather than someone with current ties to your employer.

When to Contact an Employment Attorney

It is illegal for your employer to discourage, hamper, or forbid you and your co-employees from talking about pay. Similarly, you cannot be punished for discussing your wages with others.

If your employer engages in this type of behavior you should immediately contact a labor and employment law attorney. Likewise, you should seek assistance from a lawyer if you suspect that your employer is engaged in discriminatory or unlawful practices when it comes to pay.

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