You Found Out a Co-Worker Makes More Than You—Here’s What to Do

Use these expert tips to stand your ground for equal pay.

No matter how old we are or how long we’ve been working, we all have questions when it comes to careers—from how to respond to a rejection letter to learning to say no when a role isn’t a good fit. That’s where Career Counselor comes in. In this weekly series, we connect with experts to answer all of your work-related questions. Because while we don’t all have the luxury of a career coach, we still deserve to grow in our careers.

For many women, an unfortunate reality of work is finding out that you’re paid less than a male coworker despite doing the exact same job. While pay disparity is a common situation in America, it doesn’t mean you can’t take action at your job and stand up for your self-worth.

According to Payscale’s Gender Pay Gap Report for 2020, the median salary for men in America is about 19% higher than the median salary for women overall. And Black, Hispanic, American Indian, and Alaska Native women, specifically, make 25% less than white men—no matter the job type, seniority level, or industry. However, the report also found that for men and women with the same job and same qualifications, women of all races earn 98 cents (or 2% less) for every dollar earned by their white male counterparts.

While the report states that this is a 7% improvement from 2015, there’s clearly still work to be done, and it’s important for everyone—not just women and minorities—to pay attention to these issues and fight for equality. That said, if you are a woman and/or a minority making less than your male colleagues, it can be hard to stand for yourself without risking your job security.

So what should you do, exactly, when you find out you’re making less than your coworker for doing the same amount of work? We connected with career experts to get their advice.

HelloGiggles (HG): What is the first thing you should do if you find out you’re making less than your colleague for doing the same work?

The first thing that anyone needs to do when they find out that there’s a pay disparity is to research pay levels in your job, or something similar, on a national basis. Do whatever research you can about pay within your company—but this can be touchy and tricky, so be tactful. It’s important to know that you are well-researched when you finally do meet with your supervisor to discuss your salary.

Additionally, you need to take inventory of your own accomplishments at work because there isn’t a boss who would want to give a raise to an employee who isn’t able to show they’ve added value to the company.

Daisy S. Swan, career coach

HG: How should you address your concerns and request to be paid the same when meeting with your boss?

Be sure to practice what you want to say to your boss before you have this talk. You’ll want to feel strong and clear, not defensive or argumentative. You’ll need to present your statement that you’ve learned about pay disparities, present that you’ve done your research on salaries for your role and the pay at the company, and that you’d like to know what can be done to increase your pay.

Your boss will probably be surprised, maybe even unaware of this information. Recognize that your boss is also a human who may be struggling with how to justify the situation; personally, I think it’s important to remember that it will most likely take time to get this issue resolved as it will have to go through various people to get your salary changed.

— Swan

HG: What are some questions or phrases you should use during the meeting?

Here’s one way to start the conversation. “Thank you for meeting with me. I want to talk to you because I recently found out that Brad’s salary is higher than mine.” You can stop talking at this point and see what your supervisor says. To negotiate effectively, you want to find out more information from the other person so that you can strategically problem-solve with them to reach your goal. That’s why you want to spend more time listening than talking. Ask open-ended “how” and “what” questions.

The ultimate question, which you may circle back to several times in the conversation, will be some version of “How can my salary be increased to match Brad’s and to make up for being paid less for the last three years?” A variation on this question is “What can be done to make up for the difference between Brad and my salaries?”

You want to be able to clearly, concisely, and confidently state how comparable your work is to Brad’s and demonstrate how you have outperformed—or performed equally as well—as Brad over time. Examples and illustrations can help paint a more accurate and persuasive picture.

— Cynthia Pong, JD, career coach and author of Don’t Stay in Your Lane: The Career Change Guide for Women of Color.

HG: What’s the best way to approach the conversation without letting emotions get in the way?

It’s crucial to manage your emotions and not let them drive your conversation. Your chances of successfully negotiating a pay increase are much higher if you approach the conversation like you’re problem-solving with a team partner—not fighting against someone who has wronged you (even though you’d be justified in feeling that way).

It’s also easier to think clearly, process new information, and make strategic decisions when we aren’t overcome with anger. Be sure to fully process your negative emotions in advance of this conversation: Vent to a friend, talk to your therapist or coach, or journal it out.

— Pong

making less money than coworker, being paid less than colleague,

HG: When a superior suggests you’re not ready to receive the raise, or it’s not in the budget right now, how should you respond?

I would recommend using the technique of “mirroring,” set out in Never Split the Difference, my go-to book for negotiation. Mirroring in this situation means you respond by saying—in a neutral, calm, de-escalating tone—“not ready?” You are repeating the one to three operative words that the other person just said and then inviting them to elaborate further. It’s another great way to maximize listening and minimize your speaking. This allows you to find out more information and make the other person feel heard and understood by you, which will make them more likely to do right by you.

You can [also] use the mirroring technique to find out more information and build empathy, e.g., “Not in the budget?” Let them explain further. That will give you an indication of how “real” of an excuse/explanation that is. Use “how” and “what” questions to get them to problem-solve with you around it. If you get the sense that it’s really not something you can win right now, get them to commit to a date for follow-up/revisit the conversation and regularly follow-up with them about it.

— Pong

HG: What should you do if your boss denies the pay gap or shames you for talking about salaries?

If this happens, know that there’s nothing wrong with you for having brought it up. Instead, this is important to note. This may be indicative of the culture at your company. It may be time to look for a new job if you find your request(s) fall on deaf ears. 

— Swan

HG: How should you close out the meeting and follow-up to ensure that you receive a raise?

Nail down all the specifics, especially timelines. If they agreed to the raise and backpay: “Thank you and please let me know what I can do to make sure the raise and backpay go through. I’ll follow up with you next week to make sure it’s going smoothly.”

If they don’t answer either way: “What can I do to help you come to a decision?” Wait for their answer. “Okay, great. Thank you for your time. Can I follow up with you next week to check in?”

If they say no and you are staying at that job: “I’m sorry to hear that. What can I do to be paid on par with Brad going forward?” Wait for their answer. “Okay. I will work on those things and I’ll circle back to you in a month to revisit the conversation.”

If they say no and you won’t be staying at the job: “I’m sorry to hear that.” Optionally, you can thank them for their time.

In all but the last scenario, following up shows that you are serious and that this is a priority for you. (In the last scenario, you know it’s time to move on to another job.) So whatever you say you’re going to do, be sure to do it and communicate that back to the supervisor. 

— Pong

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