When I graduated from college, I took a job as an entry-level employee at an R.R. Donnelley production facility. I worked hard, climbed the shop floor ladder, and a series of promotions later, I became a manufacturing supervisor. 

I loved the job, the benefits, the salary. Until one day, I found out a much less productive supervisor earned a lot more than me.

Now, I felt underappreciated and underpaid.

Employees discussing salary at work

My boss noticed the dip in attitude. (While he failed to recognize outstanding performance, he quickly spotted even the smallest decreases in productivity.) 

“I know it’s wrong,” I said, “but I can’t get over the fact (Bob) makes that much more than me.”

He pursed his lips, then nodded. 

“For one thing,” he said, “you shouldn’t be having those conversations. Employee guidelines strictly forbid discussions regarding employee pay.”  

But is that policy allowed?

Can you tell employees not to discuss pay?

In a word: No.

Many employers actively discourage the discussion of wages and benefits with other employees. Some employee handbooks explicitly forbid salary discussions. 

But know that if you create a similar policy, you can’t enforce it.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects your employees’ rights to collective bargaining and discussion of conditions of employment like

  • Pay
  • Work hours
  • Safety

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) considers conversations that help employees “take action for their mutual aid or protection regarding terms and conditions of employment” to be “protected concerted activity.” 

In short, the NLRB favors transparency: Disciplining or firing employees for discussing salary at work is unlawful. 

Additional Pay Equity Laws

There are several federal laws, including the above and The Equal Pay Act of 1963, that you must follow carefully to avoid unfair labor practices.

Pay secrecy policies regarding the discussion of work conditions, including pay, violate federal labor laws. But many states have additional, stricter rules regarding employment rights, including

  • Pay transparency
  • Non-disclosure agreements
  • Rights to sue
  • Backpay for unfair compensation

Review your state’s employment laws or work with an employment law firm to ensure you’re not violating any rights of employees.

Can managers discuss employee compensation with others?

Though you cannot prohibit employees from discussing compensation, that’s not the whole story. Managers should respect employee confidentiality and refrain from discussing their salaries with others.

Being intentional about compensation

Ad hoc, one-off decisions are hard to explain and even harder to justify—especially where employee pay is concerned. That’s why many companies openly share how they determine pay rates.

Some, like Buffer, the social media management company, provide a calculator that shows how employee salaries are determined. The formula factors in job type, experience, seniority, and location (Buffer employees work remotely) to determine final rates of pay. It’s available to existing employees and candidates.

While you don’t have to create a calculator, you should have company policies in place to objectively determine starting pay—here’s a handy guide—as well as your process for raises and promotions. Adopting objective criteria for making pay decisions will help you defend yourself against unequal pay claims.

What to do when employees have questions about team pay

Small business employees are smart. They know your business has financial constraints, that competition is stiff, and that revenue is rarely stable. (If they don’t, it’s your job to keep them informed.)

They understand why you might not be able to pay market-leading salary ranges. But they will never understand pay inequity.

Here’s what you can do if an employee comes to you with questions:

1. Take a deep breath.

Don’t respond defensively. Here’s a great response you can use.

“I’m happy to discuss that with you. In fact, I want to give the conversation the time and attention it deserves. Let’s meet this afternoon.”

Pressing pause allows you to…

2. Be as prepared as possible.

Review how their pay was calculated, your pay practices, and the employee’s recent performance and career goals. When you have difficult conversations with employees, work with human resources to facilitate a positive conversation. You may want to seek legal advice from an in-house or employment lawyer to ensure you stay compliant with employment law.

3. Don’t compare employees.

Evaluate the employee’s pay and performance in comparison to company pay practices, standards, goals, and targets. But refrain from comparing them to others.

4. Detail a path to a higher salary.

Ultimately, your employee wants to earn more. Unless you made a mistake in determining their compensation, agreeing to a raise on the spot—especially if the employee is threatening to leave—implies you paid the individual unfairly in the past. 

Instead, describe how the employee can earn more in the future through increased performance, taking on more responsibility, gaining additional skills, or assuming a leadership role.

5. If you can’t afford to pay the employee more, say so.

Be empathetic, but don’t apologize. Explain why. Use facts, figures, and logic to help the employee understand. Lay out what you’re trying to achieve, what you hope and plan for your business, and how that will impact your employees.

Be genuine and transparent. Most employees will understand.

Bottom line: open communication wins the day

In the end, a workplace built on trust and cooperation is always better than one built on secrecy and fear. Fostering trust begins with management. Ensuring your employees know their rights—and that their rights are fully respected—is an essential step here.

Salary transparency also poses a huge opportunity to set yourself apart from competitors. Sharing salary ranges in job postings, outlining clear paths to better compensation, and delivering on salary promises will help you attract and retain top talent.

If you’re ever unsure about whether your company policies violate state or federal law, consult a professional. It’s easier and cheaper in the long run to ensure you’re compliant with the law than face a lawsuit. Not only does this hurt your bottom line, it hurts your company’s reputation.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How do I stop employees from discussing salary?

You can’t forbid employees from discussing salary information. This violates federal employment law.

Do I have to disclose salary ranges to job applicants?

While there isn’t a federal pay transparency law, rules differ by state. Some states, including New York, Colorado, Illinois, and Hawaii, require employers to disclose compensation to job applicants.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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