Ask the Law Mother: Can My Employer Require Me to Keep My Salary Confidential?

My recent posts on what to do (and not to do) when you learn a male co-worker makes more than you and how to negotiate your salary generated a lot of comments from readers, including this one from Ann in Frisco:

Wow. This would be really valuable information if I was ever able to find out what the guy in the cubicle next to me makes. Guess what? I’m never going to find out. Why? My boss would fire me if I started asking around what other people are making. He would fire the guy next to me too if he started bragging about how much money he is making. This has been the policy at every other job I have ever had too.

Ann, your company’s policy sounds familiar. In fact, most companies have either a formal policy prohibiting salary and benefit discussions among employees or have a tradition or practice of responding to salary and benefit discussions with disciplinary action.

But just because everyone is doing it doesn’t make it right.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, employers can’t prevent employees from discussing pay and benefits among themselves. Why? The purpose of the National Labor Relations Act is to make sure employees are free to organize, and preventing them from discussing pay and benefits would prevent them from organizing.

Before you go storming into your boss’s office with this little nugget of information, there are exceptions.

Your employer can prevent you from gossiping with your co-workers when you are supposed to be working. Also, while you are free to chat about your own pay and benefits with your co-workers, you are not legally protected if you got information about other employees from confidential or restricted files. In other words, if you got a buddy who works in accounting, he can’t tell you how much Bob in the cubicle next to you makes.

Finally, your company can prohibit you from discussing your pay or benefits outside of your company. In other words, don’t discuss your compensation in public forums, such as REDDIT groups or on FaceBook.  If your company has a policy forbidding external discussions of compensation, you shouldn’t discuss your pay and benefits on online platforms.

Okay, so if your employer can’t legally require you to keep your salary confidential, why does it seem like every single company has a policy requiring you to keep quiet? The answer is many employers might not even know such policies are illegal and even if they do, the penalties aren’t very serious.

The National Labor Relations Board can order an employer to provide back pay to a wrongfully terminated employee and to offer the former employee her old job back. That’s it.

Your best move? Keep conversations about compensation discrete, out of the work place, and have them in person or over the phone.  If you want to talk about salaries, do so at lunch or during happy hour.

What about your workplace? Do people feel comfortable talking about salary and benefits? Leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Disclaimer: This website is made available for educational purposes only as well as to give general information and a general understanding of the law, not to provide specific legal advice. By using this website you understand that there is no attorney client relationship between you and the publisher. The website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.

Copyright © 2018 by Siobhán Fitzpatrick Kratovil. All Rights Reserved.

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