Found Out What Everyone Else Is Getting Paid and Not Sure What to Do? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I recently found, left behind on the photocopier, a list of performance evaluations, pay, and bonuses for all of my coworkers.

Turns out new hires are being brought in at substantially higher pay and bonuses than what the old timers are getting. Also, a person who is universally viewed as a total slacker is getting paid more than some of the really good employees, including me.

I have been here several years and am well regarded—but I am in the middle of the heap in terms of salary, not near the top where I would expect to be. Now I am wondering why I bother spending all of those extra hours, nights, and weekends going the extra mile.

 I am tempted to pass this information around so everyone knows about this injustice, which seems to be borderline unethical. I am also considering just quitting and finding a job where I am truly valued for my talent and hard work.

Should I hit print and spread the word? Should I meet with my boss and demand a raise? Should I quit?

Really Ticked Off

Dear Really Ticked Off,

It can be painful, stumbling over an unpleasant truth. And my response may not make you feel better, so buckle up.

First some questions: did your company ever promise to be transparent about salaries? Did it ever promise that salaries would be commensurate with talent and effort? Does the organization pride itself on being a meritocracy?

No. No. And No.

Some more modern companies do promise this, so if you stumbled over this kind of information at Qualtrics or Buffer, for example, you would be right to be furious and self righteous about it and you would foment a revolt.

However, it appears that you work for a fairly normal organization, where salaries for similar job titles and roles fall within a wide band. The reason executives don’t want the natives talking about salaries is because compensation is usually unjust. Why?

  • People who negotiated for a higher salary in their very first job will have a huge advantage by the time they get to their third or fourth gig. Men in particular tend to negotiate at every step of their career. It can add up to more than million dollars over a career. It might be maddening, and feel unfair, but all it really means is that nobody gets what they deserve, they get what they negotiate.
  • Newer employees are probably getting paid more because it is what marketplace benchmarks are dictating. The organization will pay whatever it needs to acquire new talent and grow headcount as required in the moment.
  • Perhaps there is shortage of talent in your geographical area, or of people with the desired skill and experience set at this particular time. This will benefit you if you want to look for a job elsewhere.

If you are in the middle of your pay band, it is probably because you have not negotiated your salary at every step, that you have settled for what you were offered, possibly even from your first job out of school. I am sure your employers are delighted to have such a hard worker for such a reasonable price. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes – he or she is managing a budget and is always looking for ways to trim. I hate to say it, but as a manager, I will pay as little as an employee will tolerate, because it helps my budget, and might even mean I can afford an extra person. Don’t tell anyone.

On the ethics question I would offer the following: consider the repercussions of sharing information you found on the copy machine. What could happen? Possibly the careless person responsible could be fired. How would make you feel? It could unleash chaos; if everybody revolted and demanded a higher salary it could tank the budget and result in a layoff. Would that be a good thing? One of the best ways to parse an ethical question comes from the book Ken Blanchard wrote with Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Ethical Management. Would you be pleased to see the story of what you have done pop up as the lead story on Google news? If you say “No!” you have your answer. A good rule of thumb when you think something is borderline is to err on the side of caution.

Once you have considered all of this perspective, if you still feel strongly about it, go talk to your boss. I would say that “demanding” is probably not the best approach, but do be prepared to negotiate hard. Read up on negotiation tips—the internet is bursting with them. Practice with a friend before going in so you feel confident. Also, it would give you leverage to have an offer on the table from a competitor for the salary that feels fair. If your boss agrees with your assessment of your value, great—he can match the offer. If not, you can leave knowing that you used serendipitous information to bravely and ethically stand up for yourself.



About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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