Few companies have gone so far as to make all of their salaries fully transparent. But in most businesses, how much each employee is paid is a closely held secret. If you do happen to find out that a coworker makes more than you, how do you know if it’s discrimination or a mix of legal factors like previous experience and education?
Psychologist Art Markman helps a reader figure out what’s going on, and what she can do.
I recently read your article about salary discrepancy and find myself in a similar position. A few months ago, I was hired with another coworker for the same role. I’m 22 years old (and female), and he is 29 years old (and male).
A few days ago I saw his bank account open on a screen next to me and I saw a strange number. I did some calculations and realized that he is making 12K more than me. I confirmed this number with a friend who works for the HR company that services our payroll.
We have been doing the exact same training and do the exact same job. I have not noticed him doing more stellar work than me, nor carrying any more leadership than I have.
The difference in our salary is staggering, and upsets me because I know I am smarter than him and pick up things much quicker, and have learned more processes of our position more in depth. What difference does it make that he’s older and has “more” experience if we are doing the same job?
What should I do? I don’t find this fair, and it puts a sour taste in my mouth, especially after knowing how much I love this job and want to stay for the long term.
Thanks for your letter. As I discussed in the previous column that you mentioned, finding out that you are being paid substantially less than a colleague who is doing the same job is frustrating and leads to a general sense of unfairness about the workplace. Once you see your workplace as unfair, it can begin to make you feel bad about every aspect of your work.
To start, it is important to recognize that there are many different things that might explain the difference in salary between you and your coworker. Generally speaking, there is a range of potential salaries that a company will offer for a particular job. What you ultimately end up getting depends in part on how much you negotiate when first being hired.
A person with a lot of prior work experience often ends up getting more money than someone just beginning her career. If the company is trying to attract the experienced person from a competitor, then the company has to beat that individual’s previous salary. Similarly, if the person getting hired has several competing job offers, they can use those offers as leverage when establishing a starting salary.
Finally, it takes a while to learn that you have a lot of negotiating leverage before you start working for a company. Most people do not negotiate enough for their salary early in their career. Instead, they are grateful or relieved to have a job offer at all. There is little harm in asking for the salary you want when you first get a job offer. When the company is in the mode of trying to recruit you, they want to make sure you start out happy.
Knowing that your colleague makes more money than you do is useful information, because it gives you a sense of what kind of salary is possible within the organization. Hard as it may be, try not to spend your time agonizing over whether your colleague will continue to make more money than you. In the end, that doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that you ultimately feel like you are getting paid a reasonable salary for the work you are doing. Don’t be afraid to continue to negotiate your salary when the opportunity arises.
You may actually find it difficult to engage in salary discussions. A key personality dimension is agreeableness, which reflects how much you want other people to like you. On average, women are more agreeable than men. Agreeable people often do not advocate that strongly on their own behalf. They are worried that if they stand up for themselves, other people will think badly of them.
Research suggests that people who are high in agreeableness make less money on average than people who are low in agreeableness. If you find that you are reluctant to negotiate your salary, then you may want to seek out a career coach who can help you find a way to engage in salary and promotion discussions without making yourself too uncomfortable.
You might think that asking for a raise will make you look bad. However, if you are performing well for the company, then they will value the work that you do. Also, it is cheaper for the company to give you a raise than to have to replace you if you leave. Your company cannot give you what you want, though, unless you communicate your needs to your manager.
Finally, remember that the happiest people in life are the ones who enjoy the activities they engage in–people who have friends at work, and feel that their work allows them to work on something bigger than themselves. You say that you already enjoy the work you are doing, and that’s great. Continue to find ways to connect with your colleagues and steer yourself toward aspects of the work that are fulfilling. If you do not like the work you are doing, then no amount of money will make that better.
If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.