What to do if you discover a co-worker with the same job makes more money than you

Published: March 20, 2015 03:15 PM

Nearly five years ago Kangela Moore found out that she and more than 5,000 mostly female co-workers were being paid at least $7,000 per year less than their mostly male counterparts. Moore, now 45 and a married mother of three, had worked for the New York City Police Department as an unarmed security officer in the public schools for almost 22 years. The better-compensated men, who worked in other city locations, had similar training and duties. “Thinking of the years I was underpaid made me angry and frustrated,” Moore says.

She joined her co-workers in a collective-action lawsuit filed in March 2010. The suit was finally settled, subject to court approval, last August for $38 million, or about $7,000 for most participants. The city will spend an additional $47 million through January 2018 on accelerated raises for the female workers to bring them to parity. Moore says that the additional money will make a big difference in her family’s life. “Soon, instead of striving, we can thrive,” she says.

Discovering that a co-worker is paid more than you can feel like a slap in the face, even if you were previously happy with your salary. But before you get too angry, do a little investigating first.

Remain calm and take stock

If a chat with a fellow employee brought the salary discrepancy to your attention, keep in mind that the information could be incorrect—unless you found irrefutable evidence, such as a pay stub left at the copy machine. “I wouldn’t suggest immediately marching into your human resources department to complain,” says Sachi Barreiro, a legal editor who covers employment issues for Nolo Press.  

“More experience, merit, seniority, education, or performance on job-related tests could all be legitimate reasons someone with the same job duties is paid more than you,” says MarySheila McDonald, a professor of business law at La Salle University. Joe in the cubicle down the hall could take home a larger paycheck because he brings in a higher sales volume. Or he might have more experience or asked for a raise when you didn’t.

Time for a raise?

If, however, you come to the conclusion that you are unfairly compensated, you’ll have a much better chance of getting a raise if you focus on the salary you deserve, regardless of what a co-worker makes, says Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist, executive coach, and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days” (Center Street, 2012). Start by researching the market rate for your field, experience, and expertise in your geographic area (because salaries can vary dramatically from region to region) on sites including Glassdoor.com, PayScale.com, and Salary.com, he suggests.

Also make a compelling list of your accomplishments, including examples of how you add value to the company. Present your case to your supervisor, and find out what steps you will need to take to earn a specific increase by a specific date if she doesn’t agree to an immediate raise. Agreeing on a three-month time frame with targeted goals would be a good start, Alpert says.

If you are told there’s no money in the budget for an increase now, be prepared with a list of less costly perks that would make you happy. You can ask to take company-paid classes that could result in a better salary in the future, for example.

Alternately, you might decide that it’s time to move on and find an employer that will pay you what you believe you’re worth. Now that you’ve done your homework, you know what the market rate is and will be better prepared for future job-offer negotiations.

When to consider legal action

Federal law prohibits employment discrimination on several factors, including race, religion, sex, age, disability, national origin, and genetic information. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 resets the statute of limitations on discrimination complaints each time new paychecks are issued and enables employees to challenge pay discrimination that has been compounded by raises, pensions, and other contributions over time. “Your state might have laws that cover additional criteria,” Barreiro says.

If, after speaking with your co-workers and supervisor, you believe that your lower salary is the result of discrimination, consider filing a legal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You can find out whether your complaint meets the EEOC’s criteria by using its online assessment tool. If it does, the organization may be able to investigate the matter and resolve it informally.

Another alternative is to consult with a lawyer who specializes in employment matters. If you hire one and she determines that your company has a pattern of discrimination, you may find yourself involved in a class-action suit like Moore—and hopefully you’ll also be on the winning side.

––Mandy Walker (@MandyWalker on Twitter)

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