If your boss asks you not to share your pay, you will likely be filled with a flood of emotions. Anger. Confusion. Disappointment. Fear. It is so disappointing, upsetting, infuriating and everything in between when someone, who is supposed to (in an ideal world) champion your progress and career trajectory, asks us to keep quiet about pay. It feels slimy and unethical and like you’re selling out your own coworkers. Besides being uncomfortable, it’s illegal and unethical (National Labor Relations Act of 1935).
After one quick sentence, “Just keep this between us,” you’re caught off guard. Your boss wants you to be a part of this implied secret, supposedly. On the other hand, you were just on the other side of this secret about 5 minutes ago.
Here are steps to take if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation that so many do.
Not “Go-To” Method
*In all transparency, there’s not one “go-to” method. It’s illegal, but enforcing it is another item, as is with many pieces of legislation. There *should be* specific steps to take if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation. But as of right now, it’s more of a state-by-state handling of the situations (and this varies quite a bit). Some states may have specific procedures or hotlines set up to deal with these affairs. You know your situation best. Check out the tips for more insight and getting guidance from a lawyer beforehand is always recommended.
*Disclaimer: *All of these items aren’t without risk, unfortunately. It’s a risk even though it’s unethical and illegal in many cases. it’s not right and it’s not fair. But that’s how it’s going to change, too. By taking risks and speaking up. Assess your individual and personal risk and make a decision that is best for you. This is the current and unfortunate reality. Career experts have recommended seeking the advice and support of a lawyer before acting on any of the items below.
8 Helpful Tips If Your Boss Asks You Not to Share Your Pay
Depending on how comfortable you feel with the situation, here are options:
- 1. continue to share your pay / negotiation / increase with your coworkers (either covert or not)
- 2. see if it’s in writing in an employee handbook or policy
- 3. talk about it to HR *with caution
- 4. in the moment, ask your boss “why not?”
- 5. begin looking for a place with better culture / more ethical pay policies / pay structure
- 6. look into what can be done legally about this / past precedents in your workplace / city / state / etc.
- 7. when you leave that workplace, let them know that’s one of the reasons you’re leaving
- 8. tell your coworkers that your boss asked you NOT to share your pay so they’re aware / ready for it too
Read about each option below.
It’s a BIG misconception that employees can’t disclose salary at work. Unfortunately, this idea has been the narrative for a long time, in large part due to companies not wanting this information getting out. This is illegal. It has always been unethical.
But according to the National Labor Relations Act, enacted in 1935, “private-sector employees have the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” While that language is sort of confusing, “it means that you and your co-workers get to talk together about things that matter to you at work. Compensation is one of those things you can talk about… The National Labor Relations Board has long held that these pay secrecy policies that many employers have in writing violate the National Labor Relations Act” (Dreisbach, 2014).
It’s still a gray area and companies absolutely do try to unlawfully enforce that. But that’s exactly what it is in most cases – unlawful.
Laws Prohibiting Salary Secrecy
An executive order was also signed in 2014 “prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about their salaries or other compensation information… But here’s the thing: Under a nearly 80-year-old federal labor law, employees already can talk about their salaries at work, and employers are generally prohibited from imposing “pay secrecy” policies, whether or not they do business with the federal government” (Dreisbach, 2014). In 2014, this was signed largely under a symbolic movement because so many people don’t know that it’s already part of the law.
This information needs to be more widespread! Many employees are still under the impression that it is legal for employers to prohibit employees from sharing.
Salary Secrecy Hurts Workers
Salary secrecy hurts those who need to get paid the most. Those suffering decades of wage suppression deserve wage transparency.
“There are direct, concrete consequences for falling victim to salary secrecy, including wage suppression and a lack of transparency around pay inequity, which disproportionately affects women and minorities”Tim Herrera, 2018, New York Times
You can talk about money. Our employers and work environments often make us feel like we can’t. Salary secrecy and a lack of transparency has multiplying consequences. Employers that hide pay practices with the underlying tone of “protecting” employees is a false narrative. We don’t need protection, we need to get paid.
8 Tips: How to Respond If Your Boss Asks You Not to Share Your Pay
1. Continue to share with your coworkers (either covert or not)
If your boss tells you NOT to share your pay, that is a clear sign that sharing this information will greatly benefit your coworkers. You make the call depending on the situation, how you feel, and what your gut is telling you.
When this happened to me, I immediately felt sick. I took a little bit of time to think about it, and then I knew I couldn’t keep it to myself. It was unethical and unfair to my fellow coworkers. At the time, I had no idea it was illegal. Each situation is different. Assess your situation and your risk.
2. See if it’s in writing in an employee handbook or policy
Is it in an employee handbook or company policy? If it is, it’s likely not legal. It is not likely that you will find it in company policy because companies are usually aware of what legal ramifications can come if it is printed. Employee retaliation by your employer for sharing pay is not legal.
*Those that have experienced retaliation have noted that it can come in subtle ways that aren’t as overt, such as fewer hours, lower performance reviews, etc. The inadvertent retaliation is still illegal. It also makes it difficult to prove. If this is happening, it is likely intentional.
3. Talk about it to HR *with caution
Did you find it in your employee handbook? Do you feel comfortable bringing it up to HR? Keep in mind that HR’s role is to support the organization in an ideal workplace. In this case, that means all elements of the company, which also includes you as an employee.
Depending on your situation, your experience with HR can vary. In some cases, it can be a positive experience and they can really support you. As many workers attest, sometimes “support” from HR can be less than ideal. Be ready for both.
Maybe you know your HR team and have a feeling about how the conversation would go. Be cautious as you approach this conversation, as some career experts suggest to get a lawyer or speak with an attorney before approaching this conversation with your HR department. (This can be paired with #7 too – letting your HR department know that’s one of the reasons you’re leaving.)
4. In the moment, ask your boss “why not?”
Play naive or… not. Ask, “why not?” In the moment, they may realize that what they are asking is not ethical (and illegal). Or they may give you an “explanation” that gives their request pseudo rationale: “If everyone knew what you made, they will ask for more, and then we wouldn’t have enough for your large increase.”
Remember that you don’t have to agree. You can remain silent. Don’t feel obligated to say “yes” or “ok.” Your silence can speak volumes, too.
5. Begin looking for a place with better culture / more ethical pay policies
It’s unfortunate when it comes to this, though many workers report doing just that when they find themselves in this situation. It’s bad practice by the boss because it makes their employees feel uncomfortable and unethical in many situations. Sometimes leaving is the best option.
6. Look into what can be done legally about this / past precedents in your workplace / city / state / etc.
Start to research to see what can be done. Some states have stricter laws to enforce/ discourage employers from asking employees not to talk about pay. Laws in certain states explicitly state this, while other states do not have it expressly written. (It is illegal whether it is written in the state law or not, through the National Labor Relations Act of 1935.) Some have labeled these laws useless as they are not adequately enforced. Check it out and see if there is a precedence in your company, city, state, etc. As each year goes by, less is tolerated in the workplace.
For example, in the state of Illinois, it is explicitly stated that it is illegal for employers to prohibit employees from talking about pay:
“Can an employer prohibit me from discussing my salary with other individuals?“
“No. An employer cannot prohibit its employees from disclosing their own salaries, benefits or other compensation to other individuals.”Illinois Department of Labor, 2021
So they’ve stated it’s illegal. Now what? Some states may have a hotline set up to call in and get information about these types of situations. They give specific advice on how to contact them if illegal practices regarding pay take place: “You should call the Illinois Department of Labor at the Equal Pay Hotline 866-372-4365” (Illinois Department of Labor, 2021).
7. When you leave that workplace, let them know that’s one of the reasons you’re leaving
Consider this when you leave that place. This can be difficult as many rely on references from previous employers. Although, it can be worthwhile to let the company or HR know that their actions were unacceptable and illegal (either anonymously or named). It may help to prevent it from happening again.
8. Tell your coworkers that your boss asked you NOT to share your pay so they’re aware / ready for it too
Your boss asking you to keep your pay, increase, or negotiation a secret could be a signal that you need to let your coworkers know so they can prepare if they find themselves in the same difficult situation. You know your situation and coworkers best to make the best decision.
*Disclaimer: As stated, all of these items aren’t without risk, unfortunately. It’s a risk even though it’s unethical and illegal in many cases. it’s not right and it’s not fair. But that’s how it’s going to change, too. By taking risks and speaking up. Assess your individual and personal risk and make a decision that is best for you. This is the current and unfortunate reality. Career experts recommend seeking the advice and support of a lawyer before acting on any of the items listed.
*National Labor Relations Act (1935)
*Article: New York Times @nytimes “Why you should tell your co-workers how much money you make”
Author: Herrera, T. (2018)
*Article: NPR: Pay Secrecy Policies at Work Often Illegal and Misunderstood (2014)
Author: Tom Dreisbach
*Article: Equal Pay Act Salary History Ban FAQ
Author: Illinois Department of Labor
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