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Office Hours: Help for When a Colleague Makes More Than You

You just found out that a coworker is paid more than you. But the two of you have the same job. What should you do?

You could call your network (and you should). You could also read our new column, “Office Hours,” where we’ll be posing your burning career questions to our board members and other Conference for Women friends.

Here’s what four business leaders from our boards would recommend doing if you’re underpaid—advice you can take to the bank, literally!

Alison Quirk
Retired Executive VP and Chief Human Resources and Citizenship Officer, State Street
Board Member, MA Conference for Women

“I believe that the often cited wage gap between men and women is real—there is enough research and solid data to back it up—and it is wrong.

“That said, there are many legitimate reasons why one person could be paid below or at ‘market rate’ and another person in the same job could be paid above it. The higher earner could have been in the role longer. She may have relevant experience with another employer or an advanced degree or certification in a relevant field of study. Her job may have different responsibilities even though she has the same title. All are perfectly legitimate.

“But after careful consideration, if no significant, legitimate difference can be identified, it’s time for you to talk to your boss. Be as objective as possible when expressing your concern that you think you may be underpaid. Ask for insight regarding the pay determination process, then ask if your boss would look into the situation given your specific concerns. This process may need to be extended to the human resources area (if there is one) or to other, more senior level decision makers. I have done this for myself and I have coached others through the process. Each situation was nuanced but the situations with the most successful outcomes were those that were presented with an open mind, calmly and with facts to back up the concern.” 

Alison YoungAlison Young
Executive Director, Drexel University’s Institute for Strategic Leadership at LeBow College of Business
Board Member, PA Conference for Women

“Having worked in both the public and private sectors, and with varying degrees of transparency around individual salaries, I recommend you first take a beat before reacting. Then gather information in an objective, non-emotional way. Your responsibilities may be the same, but have you considered differences in tenure in the position or in the company? Do you both have the same levels of education and training? Also, remember that salary is rarely the only compensation an employee receives. Do you get the same benefits and vacation leave?  

“Once you have the answers to these questions, approach your HR department or boss in a manner that seeks to address the gap, not simply complain about your awareness of it. Have a goal in mind of what remedy you’d like her to consider, and be realistic about what’s possible in the current environment. For example, if you know times are tight and you’re not likely to see a significant salary increase, suggesting an alternative that has value to you like additional time off, a one-time performance bonus, or attendance at a conference may help you address the pay gap in a constructive and mutually satisfying way.”

Ann BarlowAnn Barlow
Partner and President, Peppercomm
Board Chair, Watermark Conference for Women

“View this as a problem to be solved rather than a personal slight. Sometimes new people come in commanding much higher salaries, or someone threatens to leave and gets a counter-offer to stay; as a result, salaries get out of whack. If you learn someone else is being paid substantially more—beyond what’s reasonable based on experience and negotiating skills—you have the right to address the problem.

“Next step, gather data. Start by asking your HR department for the range for your position and the qualifiers for the range. You should be perfectly entitled to that information. Then take a look at what other employers are paying for similar work in your area (Patty McCord, former Netflix chief talent officer, says that companies should pay people what they’d get paid if they went elsewhere in their geography—essentially ‘mark to market’). Check out online surveys and job postings. Even better, go on some interviews, which will give you more specific and accurate information—as well as remind you that you’re marketable.

“Finally, prepare a business case to make to your boss for more pay. Focus on what you deliver (your accomplishments and value to the company) and the data you’ve collected. That should suffice to get you what you need. If it doesn’t, I think you’re well within your rights to let your boss and HR know that you are aware that a colleague is being paid quite a bit more and that you’re disappointed.

“Either way, I would say it’s time to stop and evaluate. For me, having a sense of trust between employees and company leadership is vital. If I learned that the pay gap was either an oversight or something that was in the process of being rectified, I think I could stay on the job. If it was more careless, more egregious than that, I’d head for the door regardless. Or maybe my lawyer’s office.”

Carla Pineyro SublettCarla Pineyro Sublett
Fellow, Aspen Institute
Former CMO and SVP, Rackspace
Board Chair, TX Conference for Women

“With women earning 80 cents on the dollar compared to their male counterparts, there will likely come a time in every woman’s career when she must face this reality. My first advice is that before broaching the subject, be sure that you are performing and operating at your best. It is tough to make a case for more money if you aren’t.

“Then, prepare to make the ask for parity. I would also suggest consulting with outside legal counsel. And, sadly, being prepared also means readying yourself to hear a response that you may not like. Timing, business performance, corporate culture and leadership styles are all variables that play roles in the ultimate outcome.

“If you don’t get the result you want, you have to ask yourself how far you are willing to go. Kat Sadler reportedly left her post at E!News when she found out her peer was earning double her pay, but you will probably want to wait until you have a new job. And when you do get your next offer, remember that the best time to negotiate and receive your full value is your entry point into a company.”

Got a career dilemma? Submit your question to us at [email protected]—and we may feature it in a future column.

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