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March 10, 2009

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If you are a baby boomer or older, chances are you weren't in your first job very long before you heard this advice: "We don't talk about how much we make around here," or "it's against company policy to share salary information." Although many employees are still being terminated over violations of these policies, such harsh are increasingly under attack.

Actually illegal

Although not that many people are aware of it, it has actually been illegal to forbid discussions of pay since 1935. The National Labor Relations Board has consistently ruled that employees can share information about their wage with their co-workers. Workers who were fired for doing so have had their jobs reinstated by the NLRB.

In fact any rule forbidding employees from talking about their compensation, benefits, or other terms and conditions of Employment is probably illegal, because it might be interpreted as prohibiting workers from exercising their right of "concerted activity".

Employers' reasons

Employers have traditionally not wanted salary comparisons for a variety of reasons. One obvious one is that once Suzy realizes Johnnie makes more than her, or got a bigger bonus, she will be in asking for more too. Employers feel like their labor expenses will go up, and it will be harder to reward their most outstanding employees. More traditional employees generally feel that it is unprofessional to shared salary data, but many younger and more line-oriented folks do not hesitate to go public with how much they make.

Not much sympathy from employees

Employees aren't usually that receptive to arguments put forth by their employers, such as the policy "is in place to protect workers from being asked by nosy colleagues." Organizations like 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, hold that bosses have hid behind arguments like that to discriminate and perpetuate wage gaps between men and women, and minorities. 9 to 5 has gone so far as to support legislation that would prohibit paying men and women in the "same establishment" from being paid differently for similar jobs. The United States Chamber of Commerce opposes such legislation, saying it is unnecessary.

Retribution frequently an issue

Many of the people fired by their organizations for discussing pay got the attention of their employers because they helped disclose pay inequities in the firms. One such person is Mary Craig, profiled in a recent New York Times article (July 28). Ms. Craig helped employees who came to her with pay problems such as being shortchanged about overtime. Shortly after she helped her co-workers, her employer fired her.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues
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