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I am located in United States. I have a coworker who is senior to me (in that, if my title is "Blah", his title is literally "Senior Blah").

This morning he made a comment about job postings for a junior position on a competitor's website. He essentially said:

Ugh, looks like they're paying juniors MORE than we make as 2nd-level workers! Look, they're offering between $X and $Y for starting salary!

Where $X and $Y are $10k below/above what I am currently making (placing me squarely in the middle of the competitor's offering). I think I can infer from this that:

  1. My coworker is making less than this range.
  2. He is possibly unhappy with his salary (why else is he browsing job postings?)
  3. I am being paid relatively well.

This realization has made me feel both lucky, a bit guilty, and also worried that we might lose this guy. In my perception, he is really smart, presents himself well, and I have a great deal of respect for him professionally. I really hope that he does not leave us, because I think he does a great job, and I learn from him routinely.

Is there any tactful way to broach such a topic with my manager, to the effect of "Hey, we need to do something to retain this guy who is apparently being severely underpaid?" I think it is a potential red flag that this guy is even browsing external job postings at all. I can think of no way to do this that doesn't somehow imply that we're inappropriately comparing salary info (we weren't - I think this was just an honest comment from my coworker, not an attempt to divulge his or seek my own salary info). (I know that sharing our salary info isn't really illegal in any case, however doing so would be frowned upon, and really is an inaccurate picture of what happened anyway.) Of course I also don't want to raise any red flags that maybe I'M being overpaid.

EDIT: It has been mentioned that this is a possible duplicate of another question. However I think a significant difference with my question is that the person in question is a coworker, and not myself. Although the other question may have useful info as well, I believe that the fact that this is another person adds a layer of nuance. E.g. I believe that sitting down with my boss and saying "Look, I think I am being undervalued and here is why" is substantially different than "Look, I think that Frank is being undervalued and here is why," at least in terms of how one would approach it. There is also the added quirk that I myself am also apparently being paid quite well comparatively.

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    Possible duplicate of How should I properly approach my boss if I'm feeling underpaid? – gnat Jun 4 '18 at 14:35
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 6 '18 at 20:59
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    @gnat That is not a possible duplicate. The titles themselves state so. Furthermore, "How to approach a boss about an underpaid coworker" and "How to approach a boss about being underpaid" are two different concepts, with two different structures, and a multitude of different answers and approaches. For example, there is no element of salary comparisons when you are the sole variable. – The Anathema Jun 6 '18 at 21:37
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    @gnat This is meta, but duplicate answers and duplicate questions are not the same thing, e.g. "What causes bread dough to rise?" and "What causes beer to ferment?". – EKW Jun 7 '18 at 16:42
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    @gnat yet the top voted answer for this question is completely different from the ones there. – Kat Jun 8 '18 at 17:51

12 Answers 12

271

Don't approach the boss, approach your colleague himself.

You should tell him something along the lines of, "You know that if the competitor pays X you could probably ask for a similar/higher figure. I think you should talk to the boss about this".

Salary is a supply/demand thing; your boss wants to pay as little as possible, but will be ready to pay as much as your coworker is worth (i.e. how much would an equal replacement cost). Without your coworker expressing his dissatisfaction from this situation, he is unlikely to be offered a raise.

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    I would not say "the other company pays more", as that'll make him at least somewhat interested in the other company. Instead, I'd go for "the average salary for your/our tasks is about XX, you can bring that up". – Martijn Jun 5 '18 at 7:44
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    If this leads to your colleague realizing he is underpaid, depending on his type he might just leave the company instead of negotiating (some types strongly dislike it) - which is exactly what the OP wanted to avoid. – mastov Jun 5 '18 at 10:23
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    @mastov I think we can assume the coworker already realizes he is underpaid since he's remarking about salary ranges on job postings. If urging him to negotiate triggers him to leave, he was going to do it anyway eventually. – Dan Lyons Jun 5 '18 at 17:57
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    "but w̶i̶l̶l may be ready to pay as much as your coworker is worth" – jpmc26 Jun 6 '18 at 3:30
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    Agreed that it sounds like he already knows he's underpaid, and might just assume that the company underpays all its employees as a rule. If that's the case then urging the coworker to negotiate might trigger them to try negotiating before leaving. This is someone who's not only looking at other jobs, but openly discussing it at work. To me it sounds like he's already preparing to leave. – mmitchell Jun 7 '18 at 22:16
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It is a sad but true thing that the longer you work for a company, the farther you get from what the market is paying. Market rates are generally only paid to new hires. Annual pay raises rarely keep up.

If you want to keep your salary at market rates, you have to either move on every two years or so or negotiate for yourself. It is your coworker's choice which he wants to do. There may be (and likely are) many other reasons besides pay as to why he is looking. If knew he was underpaid that much he would not have expressed surprise at the market rate. It is none of your business.

Just stay out of the whole thing.

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    This answer hits the nail on the head. It's the reason programmers should, and do, change jobs every five minutes. – Fattie Jun 5 '18 at 12:15
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    This may not be the accepted answer, but this is the ABSOLUTE TRUTH in the US. Most companies in the US do not reward employees for sticking around (in addition to merit). You have a higher likelihood of getting a raise by taking a new job than by negotiating at your existing job. – KriyanshAurik Jun 5 '18 at 12:43
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    All this answer does is to state a semi related fact about wage levels and advise OP to stay out of it with no explanation. – OganM Jun 6 '18 at 17:06
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    -1 for "Stay out of it". It's a good answer otherwise, but the OP should make the friendly suggestion to his coworker (like @laetus said) – Shawn V. Wilson Jun 7 '18 at 17:46
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    "It is a sad but true thing that the longer you work for a company, the farther you get from what the market is paying. Market rates are generally only paid to new hires..." - remarkable that this is true, especially in specialty fields, as it costs a lot more to find/bring a new hire up to speed than to hold onto a decent employee by offering competitive pay. Not how supply and demand is supposed to work! I guess enough companies noticed workers NOT seeking their value that they take advantage... or management relying too much on the "take as much you can" mindset to their detriment. – JeopardyTempest Jun 7 '18 at 19:40
51

Stay out of it. Your salary is between you and your employer. Your coworker's salary is between him and his employer.

If being underpaid bothers the coworker enough, he will raise his concerns with his boss. He is an adult and doesn't need anyone else to do his salary negotiations for him.

Never let go of an opportunity to mind your own business.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jun 5 '18 at 2:43
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You should be aware that a very specific set of behaviors are legally protected by the NLRB, even if you are not in a union. Discussing pay is protected, especially if it is a part of collective bargaining.

In short, you are legally protected from retaliation from discussing YOUR salary. You can, while on your break or in a non-work area, tell others "I make $x per year with a $y annual bonus and receive z weeks paid vacation." and your employer can only grit their teeth. Furthermore, if they do discipline you, even if they don't say it's due to you discussing your salary, you have legal means to make yourself whole.

You could speak with your co-worker after hours and tell him that you make $x. Additionally, you AND your co-worker can go into your bosses' office and discuss making pay more fair across your organization or work unit. If you are collectively bargaining for better pay, you are protected even if you are not in a union. If you go to your boss and go to bat for your co-worker as an individual, there is a reasonable chance that your boss will be quite miffed, and they would be able to dismiss you without fear of retaliation, if they cared enough.

Finally, keep in mind that in a few years, you might be at this company, underpaid. If you push for more fair compensation policies now, it may help you personally long term.

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    It has been ruled that if your employer allows you to make small talk at work, they must also allow you to discuss your salaries. So it seems to me (IANAL) that if you are allowed to discuss the latest Game of Thrones episode at your desks, you are also allowed to discuss salaries at your desk (not just in the break room). – stannius Jun 4 '18 at 18:54
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    @stannius You are correct, but I wanted to keep my answer a bit simpler and less 'if this then that'. Thank you for adding this, though. – Adonalsium Jun 4 '18 at 19:07
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    @emory I see your point but please keep in mind that police are a member of the state apparatus, employers as a class are not. The courts have a strong inclination to maintain the perceived legitimacy of the police, and stay in their good graces. Employers will likely be taken to heel by the NLRA/EEOC/etc if they clearly and knowingly violate the law. Also that penalty in your linked article was reduced to $0. – Adonalsium Jun 4 '18 at 19:46
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    @Emory The current DoL appointees appear to be career Executive branch appointees who were first appointed by Obama or Bush Jr. I don't see that there is an especially sinister appointments like with the EPA or Education, but I do see that many of the positions are left vacant, which will surely hurt enforcement. – Adonalsium Jun 4 '18 at 20:24
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    Considering most of the higher answers are "shut up and fail to exercise your rights as a worker, be a good little peon"? I'd say that this answer is perfectly appropriate. – Adonalsium Jun 6 '18 at 12:28
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In some countries, salaries are based on diplomas. If your coworker has not the same diploma as you, it is possible that the gap between yours salaries is 10k or more.

For example if you have a master degree and he has bachelor degree, you will have a better starter salary plus after some years of work the gap will only get wider even if your corworker is higly skilled.

If you both have the same diploma, maybe you are better than him to negociate a better salary.

Anyway, remember than you just presumed about his salary. I know some people who constantly said they are underpaid while they are not.

Don't be too emotional about this, because nothing good can happen if you speak to your boss or your coworker, you will be held responsible for starting the salary debate, and in the worst case, your coworker leave the company, and you are fired because your boss doesn't appreciate what you did.

Be careful on what you do next, this kind of topic can escalate quickly.

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    Two excellent points here. 1. You don't really know if your coworker is actually getting underpaid. 2. If you go asking your boss to "fix" his salary, both of them could get upset with you, and things will escalate quickly from there. – Masked Man Jun 4 '18 at 16:42
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    "Don't be too emotional about this, because nothing good can happen if you speak to your boss or your coworker, you will be held responsible for starting the salary debate, and in the worst case, your coworker leave the company, and you are fired because your boss doesn't appreciate what you did." Under the NLRA discussing salary and collective bargaining is legally protected. This answer, while not objectively wrong, is woefully incomplete regarding the OP's options. Consider revising. – Adonalsium Jun 4 '18 at 18:48
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    As I'm not american, i didn't know about the NLRA. – Med Jun 5 '18 at 16:12
  • In Brazil, there is a similar protection in the CLT. I believe many countries also have similar laws. Not to make this a political comment, but at least here, the US is know for have "laxing" employer protection laws. If the US and we have it here, I believe that many other countries have those as well. – Hugo Rocha Jun 5 '18 at 18:42
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    @Med: The OP has said he is the US. It is very unlikely that a US salary will be tightly coupled to diplomas held in the way you suggest. It is much more likely they are tied to job title, and even more likely that they are just negotiated. – Martin Bonner Jun 6 '18 at 15:56
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If I find myself in a conversation that is dealing with salary or someone feeling underpaid I like to ask a rhetorical question to the individual or those involved in the discussion:

Do you know how much you are worth?

If people do not know how much they are worth, then how are they even supposed to negotiate for a proper salary? I will not answer this for them. If they want to know, they need to do their own research and reflect on how skilled they actually are. If they know it or eventually figure it out and start to complain or grouch that they are underpaid, I then will give one last followup rhetorical question:

So what are you going to do about it?

If they look confused, I will point out some possible actions like negotiating for a better salary or looking for another job. It is far better to let the person decide on what action they want to take or if they want to take no action than for you doing it for them.

Two last notes

It is possible that a person could be in a state that they are being overpaid and do not realize how good they have it. As such I have used the first rhetorical question as a double edge sword to encourage them to actually think what they are worth and not end up in place where they are too expensive to be hired if they ever try to find a new job.

Lastly, in your case it is a little late to ask this rhetorical question since the conversation is over, but it likely this will come up again since the problem has not been dealt with, at which point you can ask this then.

  • This should be the accepted answer. Throw in Ramit Sethi's Briefcase Technique and you've basically got everything you should do. – Wayne Werner Jun 5 '18 at 16:22
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Lots of great answers on here, I agree with Laetus you should approach him first and suggest he asks for a raise. Do not mention your salary.

All I felt needed to be added is:

Do not tell management that he has been looking at job postings!

This will break his trust in you and management will lose trust in him. If he really wants to broach the subject let him do it his way.

6

Invite him out for beers and just talk about it. Keep it casual and don't be nervous. Imagine if the tables were turned, you would definitely want to learn information that effects not only your career and job satisfaction, but your quality of life and sense of self-worth. How you found out about his salary isn't as big of a deal as his labor being severely undervalued. Don't be embarrassed to tell him your own responsibilities at work and what you make. The taboo around salary in the United States hurts everyone.

3

Salary does not depend just on market value, it depends on much more things. Two employers can have the same knowledge, but one can better sell himself, as in appear more senior and request more money, while the other one maybe to shy to do something like that and will go with whatever is acceptable.

Another thing is how is someone active. I got a higher raise than my collegue, who knows as much as I do, but I'm the type of guy that gives suggestions and does things out of my comfort zone, while the other collegue just sits and works.

3

If you're not above your colleague in the hierarchy (which you say you're not), it's not advisable to directly and explicitly mention this to management - rather let your colleague take action himself, like Laetus recommends.

However, you might make it easier for your colleague to ask for a raise and get it if you amplify your colleague's good reputation in the company. Mention his positive influence on the company when you talk with management about your work. You can mention things like:

I was really grateful that Bob brought me up to speed on widgetmaking, his efficient introduction really saved us all a lot of time and effort and I could start working straight away.

or

I really like the new buildserver Bob has set up - that saves us a lot of trouble because...

or

I really admired how Bob kept his cool in the meeting with [difficult customer] and made sure that in the end we got some workable tasks out of it.

If Bob then has his salary negotiation and tries to argue that he brings value to the company, management has heard "Bob brings value to the company" before and may assign it more credibility.

1

In "Up the Organization" Bob Townsend had a solution for the essential, severely underpaid employee in a 'Theory X' organization:

'Quit, reapply for your own job, and under "salary requirements" put what you think you're worth. If the hiring manager has any sense at all, and you've correctly assessed the situation, they'll have little real choice except to rehire you for near what you're worth.'

Of course, most organizations are badly run, and they'll probably decide it's less insulting to the manager to fire your coworker than to fix the situation. The real answer is to look around for a better paying job in an organization that's not so badly run...and leave.

0

From experience I concluded years ago: Sharing ones pay with colleagues, even if they're your friends can have bad repercussions and sour the climate at work, therefore should be avoided.

Your colleague might become resentful towards you simply because you earn more than he, especially if he is longer with the company / has seniority / more experience. He also may get mad at the employer and flat out tell them about your conversation, demanding to get paid more than you. If your employer doesn't mind that you revealed your wage, working with your colleague may become unbearable if he doesn't get more money and keeps a negative attitude towards you or your work and you might decide to leave or further damage work environment by complaining to your employer.

Depending on how your employer sees things this whole thing could also result in you getting a pay cut or even being laid off (if they're careful after a certain amount of time has passed, so that it seems unrelated).

If he quits because of this, you might have irreparably damaged your relationship with your employer.

If they pay him more, your employer might become more critical about his and your performance and / or more distant.

Wage negotiations are always between the employer and the employee or their representatives and are a direct reflection of each parties' negotiation skills, the employees professional expertise and how hard the employer wants / needs said employee as well as the employees dependence on getting / keeping the job. The market values of you and your colleague were also very different at the time either of you got hired. He also might have started there before gaining senior experience and simply didn't get or ask for a raise since.

It is unlikely that an employer will gladly pay more money than they obviously paid him for years before you "stuck your nose in there".

As was said already, if you'd like for your colleague to get paid better you might nudge him in conversation towards the point he made that juniors get more than he and maybe he should get into some negotiations with your employer.

Talking to your employer on your colleagues behalf might irritate your employer and / or feel like breach of trust to your colleague, since he might assume your conversation was in confidence.

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    I respectfully disagree with your perspective on wage negotiation and the influence of each party's negotiation skills. The employer knows the market value of the position, what the employee makes, and what all of their coworkers make. The employee only knows what they tmeselves make. This creates information asymmetry and gives the employer an unfair advantage and almost total power over the negotiation process. – Jay Speidell Jun 7 '18 at 14:18
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    The USA is one of the only countries where discussing salaries is considered unusual, and that cultural bias is is reflected in our uneven wages. Discussion and comparison of your pay should be a normal part of work conversation, which is one of the reasons it is protected by law. – EKW Jun 7 '18 at 16:46
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    I have discussed salary at a few jobs and not only has it never created resentment, it's always ended up creating benefit for the lower-paid coworker in the end. Similar to OP, I once worked at a company where I was making 1/3 more fresh out of college than my mentor who had been with the company for about a decade. While he was angry when we found this out, it wasn't at me. He now works at a company that appreciates and compensates him much better and we are still friends. The only group that benefits when people don't discuss salary are those employers that pay their employees unfairly. – mmitchell Jun 7 '18 at 22:23
  • @Jay Speidell employers know what they pay everyone,I agree.However,if the prospective employee did their homework they'd a) too know how much their position is paid on average in that country/city/industry b) they would have a clear idea about their very own boundaries (min/max) for their wage they want to/can accept.From then on it is bartering.Also,at the risk of sounding harsh,business(dare I say capitalism) is not about fairness,it's about securing advantages for ones own benefit.After all,neither parties are charities.Information,understanding ones worth and assertiveness are king. – DigitalBlade969 Jun 8 '18 at 15:18
  • @EKW I worked in Canada, the UK and other EU countries at small and larger facilities (up to about 2000 employees) and people hardly ever reveal what they themselves are paid. The conversations we have however include general/average amounts being paid for certain positions by which companies.Also, the benefits and bad practices of companies are discussed. – DigitalBlade969 Jun 8 '18 at 15:27

protected by Jane S Jun 8 '18 at 2:02

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