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Everything you need to know about discussing salary with your co-workers


Worried you’re being underpaid? (Picture: Getty/Metro.co.uk)

Money is an awkward topic, isn’t it?

It becomes even more complicated when it comes to salary, which places a specific worth on the work you do.

When you suspect you’re not being paid fairly, it’s natural to feel undervalued – but to figure out if you’re actually being underpaid (and if there’s a reason), you’ll need to find out what other people in your workplace are earning.

That throws up its own issues.

From employer directives to not discuss salary to the lingering taboo of talking about money, there are many obstacles to navigate.

While we wish and wait for companies to prioritise salary transparency, we have to learn how to swerve these problems.

So, here’s everything you need to know.

Is it legal to ask your colleagues what they earn?

Can your boss stop you from discussing your salary with your co-workers? It’s complicated.

Andrea Corr, a senior solicitor in the employment team at law firm Blandy & Blandy, explains that a ‘pay secrecy clause’ – which would prohibit you from discussing your salary – can indeed be added to a contract.

But no matter what clause your boss has added to your contract, this does not override the legal protection offered by the 2010 Equality Act, which allows for the discussion of salaries in certain circumstances.

‘These include instances where an employee is attempting to gather information with a view to finding out whether any pay differences may be connected to a protected characteristic,’ Andrea tells Metro.co.uk.

So for example, if you were concerned that you could be getting paid less because of your age, disability, gender, pregnancy, race, religion, belief, or sexuality, an effort to find this out would cancel out any ‘ban’ on discussing salary.

If this isn’t a worry, have a check of your contract to see if a clause is actually in there – Andrea says it’s unlikely.

‘It is also important for employers to consider whether such a clause is desirable (rather than permissible) as it may lead to accusations of a lack of transparency or even “gagging”,’ she notes. ‘Given the general move towards transparency and the introduction of mandatory gender pay gap reporting it may be seen as regressive to introduce or rely on such clauses.’

No clause means no ability to ban you from discussing salary – although your employers can absolutely discourage you from doing it.

It’s okay to ask, but do it in the right way (Picture: Getty Images)

Can you be fired for discussing pay?

So let’s say you go ahead and ask your co-workers about how much they’re on, and somehow your boss or HR find out. Can you be sacked?

It all comes down to that contract again – and the Equality Act.

‘Employees may be dismissed for breaching, or repeatedly breaching, provisions in their contract and so if a “pay secrecy clause” is included and it is breached then an employer could, in theory, fire you,’ notes Andrea. ‘However, whether an Employment Tribunal would find that such a dismissal was fair, if you challenged it, would depend upon the reason for the dismissal, the process followed and the circumstances of the case.

‘If such a dismissal were in circumstances where the protection of the Equality Act (referred to above) applied then it could also be a basis for a claim of victimisation under that Act as well as for a claim for unfair dismissal.’

Should you ask your colleagues what they earn?

That’s the legal side covered. What about the etiquette of it all?

Is it every okay to ask someone what they earn?

Mikaela Elliott, senior manager of employer insights at Indeed, says yes – as long as you have genuine concerns about fairness of pay, and you’re not just being nosy for the sake of it.

‘If you believe you are being paid less than a coworker for doing the same job then it would be a good idea to start a discussion,’ she notes.

Check your contract for any clauses prohibiting salary discussions (Picture: Getty Images)

How to talk about salary with your colleagues

You’ve checked your contract, thought about your worries, and have decided that yes, you really do need to know what someone else is getting paid. How on earth do you bring it up?

Word and time the question very carefully – and accept that some people just won’t be comfortable telling you what they’re on.

‘It’s important to remember that not everyone is comfortable discussing their pay,’ Mikaela tells us. ‘One idea would be to explain your situation and concerns and judge if they would be open to disclosing their pay before asking directly.

‘If they’re reluctant to do so, they might still be happy to benchmark your pay, should you be happy to reveal it.’

Don’t attack the conversation with an accusatory tone, or try to pressure someone into spilling the beans.

Your best approach is a gentle one, explaining that you’re worried you are not being paid what you deserve and want to suss out the standards at your workplace, and taking no for an answer if your coworker would rather not say.

What to do if you find out a colleague earns more than you

Well, this is awkward. You asked the question and the answer confirmed your fears: your co-worker is getting quite a bit more cash than you are. What next?

Try not to react in anger or hurt – take some time to process what you’ve discovered and reflect on why this might be the case.

Has this person been at the company longer than you? Do they have different responsibilities? Did they come into the role with more experience?

If you have no clue why someone’s earning more, career happiness mentor Soma Ghosh advises having a word with your manager or HR and asking.

‘Don’t get angry – be calm and approach it in a firm way,’ Soma says.

Take in what the answer is. If they explain it’s down to different responsibilities, follow up by asking whether you could pick up more tasks to get you on the same salary. If it’s down to experience, perhaps you could make a case that you’ve learned a lot in recent months and are delivering a bunch of great stuff to the team.

If the reason given isn’t satisfactory and you’re feeling undervalued, it might be time to look for another role.

‘If you really feel you aren’t being taken seriously look for another job and leave,’ says Soma. ‘Especially if you know this information has been deliberately withheld from you.’

If you suspect that you are being discriminated against based on a protected characteristic, things become a lot more complicated.

Andrea notes that in this instance, it’s worth talking to a specialist and considering going to the Employment Tribunal, while Soma suggestes talking with ACAS.

You might need to do some digging (Picture: Getty Images)

When you’re negotiating your salary, should you mention knowledge of a co-worker’s pay?

When you’re petitioning for a pay rise, it’s tempting to say ‘well, so and so is on £50k and I work much harder than them’. This might not be the wisest way to go.

You can – and absolutely should – be clear that you know in general terms what you should be getting paid. So you might want to bring up standard industry salary bands, or outline that you know people doing similar roles at your company earn an average of whatever.

But don’t drop in specific names.

Mikaela says: ‘When negotiating salary, it’s always a good idea to come prepared.

‘Researching industry salary bands will help, and if your employer has a salary transparency policy, then you will be able to quote relevant bands.

‘If you’re aware of a coworker’s salary, you should steer clear of naming names and instead benchmark your pay to other roles at your organisation.’

‘I don’t think it’s necessary to bring up a colleague’s earnings unless it’s directly impacting on the actual work or your worth as a individual,’ agrees Soma.

‘If you know you have shown your worth, time and time again delivered, and are still not being recognised, I suggest a “generous ultimatum” – for example: “I know I am worthy of this salary because of these reasons. I would like a payrise/promotion and if this isn’t on the table then I will be going elsewhere where I will be properly valued.’

Why we need to talk more about pay

All this awkwardness brings up an important need: to have more open, honest conversations about money.

We shouldn’t have to skulk around in the shadows or tread on eggshells just to have a sense of whether we’re being paid an appropriate amount for our work.

‘Good employers should be open around compensation, including being transparent around salary bands,’ says Mikaela. ‘Discouraging open discussions could potentially lead to a negative workplace culture.

‘Discussing money can be difficult, but until it is normalised it becomes more difficult to address equal and fair pay.’

‘For employers, being more transparent around salary isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also a valuable tool for talent attraction.’

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Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.


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