Sh*t Bad Leaders Say: “If You Talk about Your Pay with Another Employee, You and I Are Going to Have a Problem”

“I was having my annual performance review with my supervisor – I’ll call her ‘Cindy Mae’ – and we came to a point in the meeting when we discussed pay. Cindy Mae gave me a piece of paper with my compensation and where it fell within a particular job grade.

After a moment, I slid another piece of paper across the table for her to look at. The paper showed several numbers for the different salary bands in our department. Each figure had a job title above it along with a corresponding amount showing what the market average pay was. Another supervisor had handed out this information to her team and one of my colleagues shared it with me.

Based on what the document read, and some additional research I did, I was being paid well below market average for my role. I told Cindy Mae that I had discussed this information with my coworkers and we felt that we should be compensated in line with what the market pays. She glared at me for a second and said “If you talk about your pay with another employee, you and I are going to have a problem”. The company had an unwritten policy of prohibiting employees from discussing pay among each other.

I ended up just accepting the amount on Cindy Mae’s paper. A couple years later, I left for a better paying opportunity with another organization.”

Well ‘Cindy Mae’ sure sounds like a peach… I’d like to attack this from two angles: the substance of the exchange as well as the tone.

So let’s start with what was said.

A supervisor threatened an employee for discussing pay with coworkers.

That is ILLEGAL.

It’s a violation of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 which affords workers certain rights to organize and, if unionized, collectively bargain the terms of their employment. There are also provisions under the NLRA that apply to non-union employees. Whether they belong to a union or not, employees in the U.S. have the right to engage in ‘protected concerted activity’. Groups of two or more employees can associate with one another for the purpose of improving working conditions, including…wait for it…discussing wages.

Any employer who retaliates against an employee for engaging in protected concerted activity will be in violation of the NLRA and could face legal action, fines, sanctions, bad press… You get the picture. And this isn’t exactly a new thing. There is plenty of case law out there demonstrating actions the National Labor Relations Board will take against employers who flout the law. An engineering firm in Texas fired an employee for talking about her pay and the NLRB forced them to reinstate her employment and retroactively pay her wages as well as retirement contributions plus interest. Even the threat of retaliation, like in our story, will prompt the NLRB to step in and set an employer straight.

Now let’s move on to the tone of the exchange.

Issuing threats to employees is never okay. “You better not do X or I’ll do Y to you” isn’t exactly the best way to maintain a positive work environment nor does it inspire employees to go above and beyond in their jobs. There’s a difference between setting clear expectations with employees and just being a bully. Weak, cowardly managers threaten their employees like a frustrated parent threatening to take away her child’s XBox. But employees are not children. They’re grown adults and leaders should interact with them as colleagues; as partners. If you are a manager and you use intimidation to get your way, then you aren’t doing your organization any favors. All you’re doing is sowing the seeds of disengagement, and the fruit they bear will be quite rotten, let me assure you.

Here’s what a good leader would have said in this situation:

“Look, you know I want us to be open and transparent with one another. I trust you and I want you to trust me. Yes, this salary survey shows you’re not getting paid what the market pays. We had to bring on more staff to meet customer needs, but couldn’t pay market rates due to budgetary constraints. Right now, I don’t believe we’re in a position to raise everyone’s base pay. But let’s discuss other options, because I don’t want you to feel like you’re walking away with the short straw or that you’re not being rewarded for your hard work. There are some professional development opportunities we could pursue for you; they would look great on your resume and get you exposed to other areas of the company. Also, in about a year you’d technically be eligible to get moved up to the next salary grade. But, based on your performance, maybe we can look into an early promotion. So tell me what you’re thinking. I want to help you succeed.”

No law-breaking. Not a whiff of bullying. Just supportive, candid, and collaborative leadership.

What do you think? Leave a comment if you’ve ever been told by a manager not to discuss your pay or other job-related matters with coworkers.

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