Business Columns & Blogs

In the Workplace: How much do you make? People don’t ask or tell

It’s hard to fight pay discrimination if you don’t know what the other person makes or you’re too afraid to ask.
It’s hard to fight pay discrimination if you don’t know what the other person makes or you’re too afraid to ask. MCT

Remember Lilly Ledbetter? Her pay discrimination case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and paved the way for legislation that makes it a bit easier for workers to seek fair or equal wages.

Ledbetter worked for years in a tire plant, earning far less than men doing the same job. But she didn’t know it. And when she finally learned about the pay disparity, the court said it was too late to complain.

A lot of people – women and minorities and their advocates – thought the decision was hogwash. How can you complain about disparity if you don’t know it exists?

The first bill President Barack Obama signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act of 2009, which effectively extended the time in which workers can file pay discrimination claims.

But that addressed just one part of tackling pay disparity. Ledbetter’s initial problem remained: How can you complain if you don’t have the pay figures to compare?

The president last year signed an executive order to provide some compensation clarity, at least in the federal work arena. Just after Labor Day, the Labor Department announced final rules to implement the order, effective Jan. 11, 2016.

Basically, employees of federal contractors and subcontractors cannot be fired or otherwise discriminated against because they discuss, ask about or disclose their own pay or that of others.

“It is a basic tenet of workplace justice that people be able to exchange information, share concerns and stand up together for their rights,” Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said.

Patricia Shiu, director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, agreed: “Pay secrecy practices will no longer facilitate the pay discrimination that is too often perpetrated against women and people of color in the workplace.”

The new rules won’t invoke a sea change overnight. A 2014 survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Rockefeller found that 51 percent of women and 47 percent of men said discussion of compensation was discouraged, prohibited or could lead to punishment in their workplaces.

Those practices are more prevalent in the private workplace. After all, most government agencies have pay grades that are made public. In the private sector, nearly two-thirds of both women and men said talking about pay was prohibited or discouraged, according to the 2014 survey.

Sometimes the prohibition is written in employee policy handbooks. Other times it’s corporate culture that workers don’t tell what they make and don’t ask about others. Furthermore, many people simply are reluctant to reveal or ask. Some consider it rude. Others fear embarrassment. Some don’t want to become a target for others’ comparisons.

And most managers and human resource departments would rather chew aluminum foil than get into individual discussions about why people are paid what they are.

Diane Stafford is a columnist for The Kansas City Star: stafford@kcstar.com, 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford, kansascity.com/workplace

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