Is Your Work Undervalued? How to Manage Pay Inequality

Equal pay is a hot topic this month, reigniting the debate surrounding new legislation. Gender and politics aside, what happens when a coworker earns more money? Should you confront your boss? Demand a raise? Quit your job? Read on for an even-tempered strategy. What you learn will help you manage your own situation.

Step 1: Calm down. Learning the specifics of a coworker’s salary often goes something like this:

Maggie and Caroline are having lunch. Both women work as graphic designers for the same firm and began their careers within six months of one another. Maggie is planning a two-week vacation in June and is excited to discuss particulars. “I can’t wait to visit St. Thomas! Things have gotten so much easier since I took this job,” Maggie says. “I guess that’s a perk of the $65K club!”

Caroline smiles at Maggie’s comment but realizes that her coworker earns $5,000 more per year than she does. By the end of the day, Caroline is fuming and decides to confront her boss about the obvious injustice.

What began as an innocent conversation quickly turned into a high-stress situation for Caroline. In less than four hours, she was prepared to expose her anger to her boss, endangering her job (and even Maggie’s). Don’t make the same decision. Harness your anger, keep your mouth shut, and focus your energy on the next step.

Step 2: Consider every angle. If you’re feeling angry, it’s easy to assume that pay inequality is the result of bias and nothing more. Before jumping to conclusions (or into your boss’s office), consider every angle of the argument. For example, does your coworker have credentials that include:

  • More experience
  • An advanced degree
  • Certifications or licenses
  • Advanced skills necessary for the job
  • More responsibility

No? All right, then it’s time to consider the hiring atmosphere. Compared to your own hire-date, was your coworker employed when the company was on a financial upswing? On a personal level, does your coworker possess greater powers of salary negotiation?

Still no? Okay, here’s a difficult question: Is your coworker better at her job? Is her work more timely and skilled? Is she more apt to take on responsibility or adapt to new challenges?

If your answer is consistently no, you probably have cause for concern.

Step 3: Proceed with caution. If you cannot find a reason to support your plight, it’s time to have a sit-down with your boss. Proceed with caution, though. Many companies prohibit employees from discussing salary with one another (consult your contract), and you don’t want to alienate your superiors. Rather than point out your coworker’s higher salary:

  • Do some research. How much are you really worth? Browse sites like to determine the value of your skills, both independently and geographically. Compile a list of data to help you form a convincing argument.
  • Schedule a meeting. Speak with your boss privately about the progression of your work. Ask if there is anything you can improve upon. Bring up the possibility of a raise based on your qualifications and geographic data.

Step 4: Prepare for change. Depending on the outcome of Step 3, you may be faced with some tough decisions. Pay inequality is a serious issue, but unless you are willing to take legal action, it’s time to find another job. Begin by interviewing elsewhere. Be bold about your skills and ask for the salary you deserve. If you are offered a position, consider telling your current boss before accepting. Highlight your concerns about pay inequality and personal value in the workplace. This strategy could a) help you retain your current job and secure a better salary, or b) allow you the freedom to move on without regrets.