Ask a Boss: My Male Co-worker Makes More Than I Do!

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

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Dear Boss,

I am a lady-type person, and I’ve been with my tech-industry employer for about a year and a half. I work in a customer-service-type role as liaison between a handful of regular customers and engineers/developers. I am one of a two-person team in this role.

My previous teammate, officially the team lead, was part of a surprise office re-org at the end of March and moved into a different role in sales and account management. I also lost the next-level manager who had been in charge of the two of us — he went with her. This left me covering the work of two people, plus working under a manager who was new to both the team and the company. I immediately applied for the lead position, since it was clear that New Manager didn’t understand my team or role very well (being new) and I was concerned about the effectiveness of his leadership with any external hire. The office is small enough and my position is “entry level” enough that there was definitively no chance of an internal candidate (besides me) filling the vacancy on the team.

After three months of inaction, New Manager finally interviewed two external candidates for the lead position — both dudes. I asked several times about my application during this time. The answer went from “I’ll interview you next week for sure!” to “I wouldn’t want to put you in that position just to see you fail” to “We’re not hiring a team lead for now, we’ll just hire at your level and see who rises to the top in six to ten months.”

Frustrating as that all is, I am fairly sure none of it is legally actionable since it was never made explicitly about my gender.

However.

We hired Fergus (one of only two candidates we interviewed) about a month ago. Last week I belatedly realized I hadn’t shown him how to fill out his time sheet, so I asked if anyone had given him the template and shown him how to use it.

He doesn’t need one. He is being paid a salary.

I am being paid hourly.

He definitely, for sure, has the same non-supervisory job description as mine. Probably copy-pasted from mine, in fact. I haven’t had the stomach to ask what he’s being paid … but with the coming change in overtime regulations, I know that as of December 1 we will legally be required to pay him at least $5,000 more than what I make yearly. Not a huge discrepancy, I know … but still reasonable evidence that one exists. And that’s IF they’re paying him the minimum possible salary.

For what it’s worth, I’ve talked to our semi-unofficial HR lady (she’s our finance manager, but was forced into HR because we didn’t have any, I guess?). She says the decision was solely New Manager’s, and she didn’t understand it either. I plan to ask about the discrepancy in an upcoming meeting with said manager, but am unsure how to address it (at least, without using the phrase “What the actual F?”).

Am I seeing discrimination where there only lies bad management? Am I being unreasonably mad about this stuff? Is this just … normal? What do I do next?

Well, there could be other explanations for it, but it sure looks a lot like sex discrimination.

Luckily, you don’t need to know for sure in order to act on it. The federal law that’s in play here — the Equal Pay Act of 1963 — makes it illegal to pay an employee “less than the rate at which [the employer] pays wages to employees of the opposite sex … for equal work.” And that’s the case whether it was intentional discrimination or not. That makes this a little easier — you don’t have to show what’s in your boss’s heart, just that he is in fact paying a man and a woman differently for doing the same job. And it helps that the man is someone whom he specifically told you he was bringing on “at your level.”

Of course, often when employers are confronted with evidence that they’re paying men and women differently, they’ll have explanations for the difference in wages: The man negotiated better, or he came from a higher-paying previous job, or he’s being groomed for management. But none of those change the fact that if you’re doing basically the same work, paying you significantly differently violates the Equal Pay Act. (The law does make exceptions if the employer can show the pay differential is the result of seniority or a merit system. We know that at least the former isn’t the case here.)

Now throw in the fact that you applied for the job, were promised an interview, then were given a vague and weird answer about why you weren’t being interviewed after all, and then your boss instead interviewed two men and hired one of them at a substantially higher rate than he pays you … yeah, it doesn’t look great.

So, what should you do about it? Normally I’d say that this kind of thing is perfect for HR, because they’re trained to spot these sorts of issues and they generally recognize that complaints of discrimination need to be taken seriously. But you don’t really have HR, if I’m understanding your letter correctly — you have someone who does some HR duties on top of her regular work. That’s a pretty common setup in smaller organizations, and it often means that the person stuck with the HR work isn’t really trained in this stuff. So it’s a bit of a crapshoot whether or not she’ll take it seriously and act on it — and her response when you asked her about it initially (that the decision was solely your manager’s and that she didn’t understand it either) isn’t particularly promising.

That said, I could be wrong about her, especially if you framed it as “what can you tell me about this?” rather than as “I am concerned about discrimination.” If that’s the case, it’s worth going back to her now and addressing it more explicitly. Say something like this: “I’ve been thinking about the salary disparity between me and Fergus, and I’m concerned that we’re violating the Equal Pay Law by paying a man and a woman so differently for the same work.” Note the “we” here — as in “we’re violating.” That’s deliberate, because it makes the conversation feel more collaborative and less adversarial. Because it’s the same tone you’d use if you were raising a less personal work concern, it sounds more like you’re looking out for the company’s best interest than making an overt legal threat. There’s still the subtext of potential legal action, but starting out this way lowers the heat in the conversation and gives you a better chance of a good outcome.

You could raise this with your boss instead, and in many cases that would be a reasonable thing to do … but based on what you’ve written here, I’m not sure I trust your particular boss to handle this well. You know him better than I do, though, and if you feel comfortable raising it with him, you could approach it this way: “Given the recent attention on the gender wage gap, I’m concerned about the salary disparity between Fergus and me. Can you help me understand why he’s salaried and earning a higher wage while I’m hourly and earning a lower one, even though we both do the same job?”

Some managers in this situation will get sidetracked on how you even know what a co-worker makes and may try to tell you that you shouldn’t be discussing salary with co-workers at all because the company considers that private information. If that happens, say something like, “For the purpose of this conversation, the issue I’m concerned about is the pay disparity. Can you help me understand that?” (Also, despite the weird ubiquity of “don’t discuss pay with your co-workers” policies, you should know that the National Labor Relations Act actually prohibits employers from preventing non-supervisory employees from discussing pay with each other … so you’re in the clear there.)

If this doesn’t result in either (a) a satisfying explanation of why your co-worker is being paid so differently than you or (b) an increase to your pay to bring you up to the same level as him, then at that point you have legal options available. You can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (no lawyer necessary!), and they’ll do at least an initial investigation of the complaint. Or you might find it helpful to talk over your options with a lawyer (which doesn’t necessarily mean suing; often lawyers are great for just advising you on how to negotiate with your employer).

Good luck, and here’s hoping you come out of this with a raise and a newly enlightened manager.

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