Illustration: Ashley Siebels
When we find out that our coworker is making more than us for the same role that we have, it can upend our worlds and transform the workplace into a battleground. How could he be making more than me? Why her and not me? Suddenly, the workplace can seem like an unfair world where you cannot succeed on your merits alone.
Here’s how to handle your reaction and subsequent potential actions with grace, so that you can hopefully get the raise you ask for or the peace of mind you seek:
1) Don’t act on your initial emotions
When you find out you’re being underpaid, it can make you feel undervalued. In this demoralizing state of mind, you may act on your feelings of inadequacy and do something rash like angrily confront your boss or coworker directly about the pay gap.
Career experts advise you to resist that first impulse, and remain calm. Don’t flip out. If you want to raise the issue with your manager, you’ll need to master those hurt feelings, so you can talk rationally about your situation.
As part of this internal reckoning, psychology and marketing professor Art Markman suggests it helps to understand that it can be normal in thriving economies for salaries to not be equal. Markman told one underpaid employee to understand that it’s “actually quite common where people hired after you may end up making more money. While there is always the chance that this is related to gender, it may also reflect market forces.”
If you do not think the pay discrepancy is fair, even accounting for outside factors like market forces, it may be time to move forward on potential actions.
2) Gather information about your salary
After you’ve mastered your feelings, it’s time to do research so you go into your pay discussions armed with data about how much your role is worth. Figure out if you’re actually being underpaid by researching the salary ranges and market value of your role through publicly available forums like Glassdoor and Payscale.
Karen Dillon, co-author of “How Will You Measure Your Life?,” even suggests going to human resources regarding your role’s salary range. “Don’t accuse and don’t be presumptuous,” she advises. Instead, ask specific questions about your role’s salary range and the company’s ability to give raises. If you find out you’re in a “lower pay bracket, and you’re a high performer, the onus is on HR to explain it to you in the name of transparency,” she said.
If your research gives you reason to believe you are being discriminated against, it may be time to go outside of the office and consult a lawyer about potential legal action.
As Dana Wilkie warned employers for Society for Human Resource Management, “When workers in seemingly identical jobs are paid differently, the employer leaves itself open to claims that the motivation for the different pay is discriminatory — particularly if the person on the lower end of the pay scale is a member of a protected class.” U.S. federal law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
3) Focus the conversation on your value, not the coworker making more
When you bring up the pay gap with your manager, do not directly bring up your coworker who is making more than you as the only reason you suddenly deserve a raise.
As Money magazine, notes, using someone else as your benchmark for success can be seen as unprofessional: “Even if you’re lucky enough not to work for one of the companies that implicitly or explicitly discourages salary discussions, it’s not professional to bring up what someone else makes for comparison.”
You can, however, bring up the pay gap directly without naming names. “It has come to my attention that others make much more for doing the same job,” is a script Dillon suggests employees can use to alert a boss about a pay discrepancy without revealing your sources and taking the pay discussion off track.
Instead of talking about your coworker, talk about the unique value you bring to the table through projects you have led, goals you have surpassed or skills you have mastered in your role. The goal is to focus the conversation on your specific accomplishments so that when you ask for a raise, it feels merited.
4) Ask about other forms of compensation
If your conversation about a pay raise goes nowhere, considering asking for compensation in other forms like extra vacation days or remote work possibilities.
5) Process your company’s answer and move on
If your negotiations are successful, congratulations! But if your talks went nowhere, don’t despair.
Even if your requests get turned down, you can at least have the peace of mind that you have been proactive about improving your situation.
Recognize that how your employer decides your role’s worth is an answer in itself. If you still feel like your employer does not properly value you, it may be time to find a new one that does.