Employee Salary Talk: What You Can (and Can’t) Do About It
We’ve never heard an office manager say, “My employees are discussing what they make and it’s really adding to the positive vibe of the office!”
Employees talking about their salaries can be the nexus of all kinds of other drama in your practice, and we all know it gets uncomfortable fast. Rarely does anything good come from these discussions and, inevitably, when coworkers start comparing salaries, the result is that one or more employees feel slighted when they find out that they aren’t making as much as someone else in the office.
How can I prevent my employees from talking about their salaries and disrupting the practice?
It’s a situation our expert HR advisors advise on often. The short answer is that you cannot penalize or prevent employees from discussing their pay. However, this does not mean you are powerless. And the solution, like most, relies on the specific facts of your situation. While this article is a cautionary tale of guidance, we go beyond telling you “You can’t do that” to give you some tools and education that can help you quickly address the problem.
One of the refrains you will often hear us use is that, for just about every HR problem you face, there is a unique corresponding federal, state, or local law that governs, in some way, what you can and cannot do. And the discussion of wages, benefits, and working conditions has a big ol’ federal law that applies to everyone, no matter the size or location of your practice, and it says a lot about what you cannot do.
Salary discussion is specifically protected by federal law under the National Labor Relations Act(NLRA)… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website…. This means you cannot maintain a “no gossiping” or a “salaries are confidential policy”… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website…. So, you can’t do anything punitive to prevent these conversations from happening. You also cannot punish someone for having a conversation about their pay.
Invariably, other things come up as part of the overall upset which can be carefully addressed without forbidding wage discussions. Here is a breakdown of managers’ basic do’s and don’ts when it becomes clear that one or more of your employees are suddenly talking about their pay.
DON’T have a policy preventing salary talk in your handbook.
Employers understandably want to discourage gossip between coworkers, including discussions about pay. They sometimes assume that putting a “No gossiping” or “No discussing salaries” policy in their employee handbook… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… is a great way to handle this. But the truth is that having such a policy in place is not only a bad idea; it creates legal liability because it is unlawful to maintain a policy or practice which limits or prohibits employees from discussing wages. A policy that violates the NLRA is actually evidence against your practice if found by a plaintiff’s attorney, which is an automatic win for them.
The NLRA is a well-known law protecting your employees’ right to discuss their working conditions, including their pay. These protections apply inside and outside the workplace (in the breakroom, on social media, at company gatherings, over the phone during the weekend –everywhere employees are having conversations). Here are a couple of examples of common illegal policies… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… in your handbook that serve as evidence to show that your business is trying to prevent employees from having conversations that are protected by federal law.
If you’re concerned that your employee handbook might contain one or more illegal policies, click here to have your handbook reviewed for free by one of our HR experts.… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website…
DO set clear salary ranges and expectations.
“Did you hear how much Jennifer is making? I’ve been here longer, and I can’t believe she is getting paid more than me! This is wrong!”
Setting explicit salary ranges and standards for how employees can increase their pay rate, otherwise known as pay bands, makes it much easier to explain to employees why they are paid the way they are and what they can do to earn more.
Pay bands typically include things like:
- Prior Experience
- Time in service to your practice
- Education level
- Personal performance
Having regular performance reviews… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… and one-on-ones… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… with your employees can also help. One-on-ones allow you to communicate your expectations to employees consistently and allow them the chance to express their concerns and expectations to you.
When your employees are clear on how to reach a higher rate of pay –certifications they can get, milestones they must reach, etc. –it can prevent resentment that might stem from a belief that your pay model is set arbitrarily.
(CEDR provides free performance review forms… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… and a free one-on-one form… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… you can use to document these meetings with employees).
DO encourage employee concern reporting.
You should have a policy in your employee handbook… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… encouraging but not requiring employees to address their workplace concerns with you or another member of management. This policy should also make it clear how to go about reporting problems. That said, you must be very careful not to imply that employees who fail to bring a concern to you, but decide to discuss it with others, are violating a policy.
This concept applies to employees concerned about their pay and any employees who may express unhappiness about other employees discussing pay. Not all employees will want to be involved with salary discussions… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website…. So, suppose an employee lets you know that conversations are taking place that make them uncomfortable. Meet with the offending employee(s) and let them know that these discussions are negatively impacting a specific team member.
You can use the Employee Concern Form available inside CEDR’s Free HR Vault software… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… by giving it to any employee who has not expressed their concern in writing and asking them to put it in writing. Keep in mind that, even if they only tell you about the concern, it’s still something you must act on. Hopefully, you have the concern in writing, and that is when you can step up and discuss the issue with the offending employee. But you must still be extremely careful when it comes to your communication. There is a big difference between saying, “You are upsetting people with your talk about pay around here,” and “One of your fellow employees is complaining that you are discussing their salary with others and they want you to stop.”
That difference may not be obvious without specialized HR training, however, which is why we highly recommend that you have an HR expert in your corner and rely on them for guidance… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… when addressing these kinds of issues at your practice.
DON’T address salary conversations that aren’t brought to you directly.
It is best to have objective criteria in place explaining why an employee’s salary remains set at a certain level and what they can do to increase their pay rate. When an employee comes to you to express that they are upset about their pay rate, you can address that directly. Similarly, when another employee lets you know that they are bothered by other employees discussing pay, you can address the negative impact those discussions have on the employee who brought the complaint to you.
Since salary talk between employees is legally protected, you can’t approach the conversation like other behavioral or performance issues. So, when you overhear employees talking about their salaries in your vicinity, it’s generally in your best interest to go into your office and quietly break out your rubber stress ball because we all know what is about to happen. Wait for an employee to bring a concern to you directly. Otherwise, any effort you make could be misconstrued as attempting to put limits on protected speech.
What if one of my employees has accessed records they shouldn’t have accessed?
While a rare situation, it is not unheard of. In fact, we had this exact issue… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… come up in our professional Facebook group… This text opens a new tab to the facebook website… a few weeks ago.
Suppose you have an employee talking about other employees’ salaries and you suspect, or it has been reported to you, that they may have accessed confidential records to get that information. In that case, you need to seek guidance from a qualified HR professional… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… who can help you understand the best way to investigate whether the employee accessed confidential records and shared what they learned. While you can’t require others to keep salaries confidential, you can, and should, protect your documents from unauthorized access.
Snooping through a desk, emails, computers, and anything where you have a reasonable expectation that the contents are private is not OK. Information obtained by snooping through your records could warrant a corrective action… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… or even termination… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website…. Still, you’ll need to ensure that you’ve conducted a thorough investigation into the matter before deciding to act. Again, this is one more situation in which professional HR guidance… This text opens a new tab to the cedrsolutions website… will prove to be extremely valuable.
It can be bad for office morale when your employees start comparing their salaries, which is why many employers want to try and prevent these types of discussions from taking place altogether.
But your employees’ right to discuss their salaries with each other is protected by federal law… This text opens a new tab to the dentalmanagers website…, meaning there isn’t much you can do if you overhear employees talking about pay.
When employees come to you with concerns about salary discussions that are taking place, you can usually address the negative impact those discussions are having on the specific employee. But, when you do, you’ll need to be careful to have documented the request from the employee asking for your help. When this comes up in your office, we highly recommend you work with an HR professional to get it right.
Rather than preventing employees from discussing their salaries, the best thing you can do is have objective criteria to make it clear to employees why they make what they make and help them understand a clear path to better pay based on clear expectations for their performance in their position.