What to Say About Equal Pay: 5 Tips for Discussing Pay Inequity in Your Workplace

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1. 5 Tips for Discussing Pay Inequity in Your Workplace

Picture this: You’re minding your own business at work when in the office printer you find a spreadsheet. The owner of the spreadsheet is nowhere in sight, so you read it to determine to whom the print out belongs.
It’s then that you see it: the spreadsheet contains salary information for your entire office. Naturally, you scan the document, and in it, you find out a disturbing bit of information: your male counterpart – a guy who performs the exact same job as you do – is earning $10,000 a year more than you do.

It’s then that you see it: the spreadsheet contains salary information for your entire office. Naturally, you scan the document, and in it, you find out a disturbing bit of information: your male counterpart – a guy who performs the exact same job as you do – is earning $10,000 a year more than you do.

The cat’s out of the bag. So, now what?

What’s next is likely one of two things, according to Heather Bussing, an employment attorney in Northern California. You must either raise the issue of equal pay, or choose to file away the information and move on to a new company.

What you decide to do depends on your individual situation and, before you make a move, the pros and cons of raising the issue of equal pay should be weighed carefully since, despite the Equal Pay Act, paying employees differently might not be illegal.

“It’s important to do a risk/benefit analysis as you enter this process,” Bussing said. “If you choose to raise these claims, there are often consequences even though they are illegal. So, you have to weigh how much time and effort you want to give this. Ask yourself whether it’s worth trying to make a change in your current organization, or whether you are better off looking for another job.”

If you do decide to pursue the conversation and seek equal pay, it’s important that you go through the appropriate channels, Bussing said. Here are the five tips to follow when discussing pay equity with your employer.

5 Tips for Discussing Pay Inequity in Your Workplace


1. Don’t jump to conclusions


Bussing counsels clients to do a full examination of the situation before addressing the issue of equal pay with their employer. She advises clients to do a comparison of their qualifications against their male counterpart’s qualifications before complaining about a gender wage gap.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the man perform the exact same job that you perform?
  • Does he have more experience or has he been employed by the company for longer?
  • Does he have specific training that you don’t have?

“Just because you have the same title, that doesn’t mean that pay equity requires that you be paid exactly the same,” she said. “Some differentiation is allowed based on experience, training, and skills. So, you’ll want to consider whether you are equals in all of those areas before raising the issue.”

2. Start with your manager


If you do an accounting and determine that you are, in fact, as qualified (or more qualified) than your male counterpart, start with a meeting with your manager.

“I would tell people to say, ‘Hey, I’ve learned that so and so is making 20 percent more than I do and it seems as if we are similar in our skills and experience. I would like to be paid the same amount, so I wanted to come talk to you about it.’”

“Once you’ve raised the issue, flags should go up in the organization that they are looking at a potential gender discrimination claim under either the state or federal Equal Pay Act.”

Bussing said that, if the pay inequity is real, having a conversation about equal pay with your manager should produce results.

“Once you’ve raised the issue, flags should go up in the organization that they are looking at a potential gender discrimination claim under either the state or federal Equal Pay Act,” she said.

3. Move on to human resources


If you have a conversation with your manager and he or she isn’t responsive, the next step would be to take your complaint directly to HR. Bussing suggests assuming a non-confrontational tone. She advises starting the conversation by reassuring them that you are not looking for anything other than to be paid fairly. Once you’ve made your case for equal pay, wait for a response.

“Give them a chance to respond and see what they say,” she said. “Sometimes [pay inequity] is an oversight; sometimes it’s a matter of one employee negotiating a better salary when they are hired. But if you can show that you are similarly situated and that gender is the only difference, then you have a claim.”

Bussing said that if a reasonable amount of time passes and it doesn’t seem that your employer is willing to rectify the situation, then you should go see a lawyer to talk about a potential discrimination claim.

4. Find an attorney


Bussing said that an employer’s defense in cases like these are almost always that salary decisions are based on these legitimate factors. Further, employers aren’t required to prove anything to the employee, which means that unless you have concrete evidence of a pay disparity, you may be operating on a hunch when it comes to filing a lawsuit.

Gathering as much evidence as you can is a wise move if you decide to consult a lawyer.

“Employers are required to comply with the law but if you go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m curious as to whether I am being paid the same amount as my male counterpart’” they are only required to look into it. But they are not required to prove anything to you or provide any documentation.”

Bussing suggests three options for employees who want to consult an attorney on a gender discrimination claim.

Small claims court:
“The filing fee is usually low and you can recover up to about $10,000 [in California],” she said. “Plus, with pay issues, each paycheck is a potential new claim so you could take your claims to-date and then, if it still isn’t rectified by your employer, you could bring another claim later.”

Wage and Hour Division (WHD):

“Sometimes the WHD will handle claims,” she said. “Usually those are overtime and unpaid wage claims, but you should check with them because each state is different. You can also go to your state or federal EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) and file a complaint, which is free and can be done online.

Hire an employment attorney

Some people balk at the idea of hiring an attorney to fight for equal pay because of the cost associated with doing so. However, Bussing said that should deter people in these types of cases.

“Usually for claims like these, attorney’s fees can be recovered [if you win your case] in addition to the missing wages,” she said. “For that reason, it’s not that hard to get an attorney to take these cases because they will eventually recover their fees. Most attorneys will, therefore, take cases like this on a contingency basis.”

To find an attorney in your area, start by searching online. Look for an employment lawyer who represents employees (rather than employers or management). Also, look for someone who is familiar with discrimination claims.

“If you don’t have any luck online, call your local bar association,” Bussing said. “You can search those by county. Call them and explain what you are looking for and they’ll give you a referral.”

5. Prepare to find a new job


Try as you might to be an arbiter of change, it’s possible that things won’t go your way when it comes to fighting for equal pay. For that reason, it’s smart to have a current resume on file in the event that you decide that enough is enough and you need to find a new job.

Try as you might to be an arbiter of change, it’s possible that things won’t go your way when it comes to fighting for equal pay.

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