Discussing Salary With Co-Workers Is Important, But Is It Legal? An Expert Weighs In - Exclusive

Talking about money can be uncomfortable. Society generally dictates that topics like money and pay should be kept private, and for decades, most American employees followed that trend. Persistent and outdated gender roles can make it especially difficult for women to tackle topics like financial inequality and pay. More recently, however, a wave of pay transparency has been sweeping through workplaces (and even Hollywood). With a renewed interest in fighting gender and race-based pay inequality, employees are realizing that talking about money can ultimately help everyone involved, and there is nothing uncomfortable about that.

Even though, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), employees absolutely have the right to discuss their pay with other employees, there is often still a persistent belief that discussing pay is against the rules (or against company policy). This can feel especially true if you want to discuss your pay at the place you spend the most time with your coworkers aka at work. Many companies use this faux-belief to their advantage in order to keep employees from potentially finding any inequalities that might exist in their pay structure. Employment attorney Ron Zambrano, a partner at West Coast Employment Lawyers in LA, spoke exclusively to Women.com to help us find out what employees can do when trying to create pay transparency in the workplace.

Addressing pay inequality at work

Even though it is legal to discuss pay with coworkers, what happens if your workplace is not on board? As an employee, it can be difficult to feel you have any recourse if your supervisor is the one breaking the rules. Ron Zambrano explained, "If your supervisor or boss is asking you to not talk about salary, then you go to the person they report to. But if there is no one above that person, the best path to take is to get them to confirm this policy in writing in an email or text message from the supervisor and make a complaint with the Department of Labor." 

If you find out there is a noticeable pay difference between you and a coworker, it can be tricky to figure out how to bring this up with your manager. Zambrano offered some advice for how to best prepare yourself to address pay inequality with a supervisor: "First, be prepared to reveal the name of the employee/coworker you learned the information from when you inquire about a potential pay discrepancy. Second, before you bring the suspicion to your superiors, have a thorough understanding of how the male employee/coworker gets paid and that it's the same metrics as you, and the only difference is starting pay. After you are armed with this information, only then do you go to your superiors to ask why that specific male coworker is getting paid more."

How to handle workplace retaliation

The stress of these situations can be exhausting enough that you might wonder if it's time to leave your job. Many employees avoid the fight altogether for fear of retaliation or termination. But as Ron Zambrano explained, "An employee absolutely has recourse if an employer retaliates against them for openly discussing their salary. At that point, the employee is a whistleblower engaged in a protected activity and the employee should immediately contact an attorney specializing in employment law." He emphasized that the statute of limitations can be pretty short for these kinds of claims. The National Whistleblower Center states that, depending on the state, an employee can have anywhere from 30 days to a few years, so time is of the essence if you are seeking attorney assistance.

"Another option is to lodge a complaint directly with the Department of Labor. There are numerous federal and state laws prohibiting retaliation for engaging in the protected activity of discussing salary or making a good faith complaint of pay discrimination," Zambrano said. Remember though, you can still face retaliation even if you are not terminated. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lists any actions that can be considered "materially adverse" as signs of retaliation. These can include being denied a promotion, denied job benefits, or even being suspended or demoted. If it's an action that can dissuade you from engaging in a protected activity, like discussing your pay, it's retaliation, and you can fight it.