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When a co-worker resents your salary

In the U.S., companies keep salary information for most jobs confidential. You know only your salary and the salaries of your direct reports. But co-workers don't generally know what each other makes.

Companies usually have strict guidelines for who's supposed to know salary information, and if you start talking about someone else's salary, you can get in big trouble. However, you have the legal right to discuss your own salary.

But, we don't. We keep it hush-hush, and as a result, it's not uncommon for pay discrepancies to exist for years because no one knows whether co-workers are making substantially more or less. Some companies even have illegal policies against discussing your own salary. (If your company does, you can point out to the HR department that the National Labor Relations Act protects the rights of all employees to talk about their own salaries.)

But what happens when your co-worker runs payroll? And that co-worker is jealous of your salary? A reader writes:
I'm a salesperson, working on a small salary and commissions. The company has just 8 people, with the office manager doing payroll for all. When I have good months, I make more than everyone. There have been times the office manager will make mistakes on my commissions and says she'll pay me on my next check, which will be another two weeks away. I usually insist upon her writing a second check for the difference. She has subjected me to other petty things besides jerking me around with my pay, but today I found out she would like to sell as well and is checking into getting licensed. The company is less than 2 years old and can't support 2 salespeople at this time. I have no idea if she has talked with the owners, but I feel it's clear she resents my income and wants the same opportunity. She made an offensive comment one day that salespeople didn't do anything. I don't trust her. What should I do?

These are valid reasons for companies keeping salaries hush-hush, because some people just can't handle knowing someone else's salary -- especially if that person earns more. This office manager is an example. Salespeople generally receive a good portion of their money based on commission -- and if they don't sell, they don't get paid. So, while sales can be a great place to make money, it's also not easy.

So, what should you do if you're in a situation where a co-worker not only knows your salary, but resents it (and as in the above case, does a bit of sabotage)?

First, she's acting correctly in bringing any pay discrepancies directly to the office manager's attention and insisting that she be paid correctly. State laws vary, but most require that your paychecks be accurate and, if not, be corrected immediately. Some states have a set amount of time between the end of a pay period and a correct paycheck being issued.

Second, bring it to your boss's attention. The higher up the food chain someone is, the more clout they have in getting things fixed. In a small business such as this, it's likely that the salesperson's boss is also the office manager's boss.

When you do bring it up, don't do so in an angry or accusatory way, but in a "I'm really concerned about this," kind of way. Here's an example dialog:

You: Can I discuss something with you? I'm really concerned about Jane.
Boss: What's wrong with Jane?
You: My paycheck is often incorrect, and I'm wondering if something can be done, because this is a concern not only for my bank account, but the company can get in legal trouble if it's not paying people properly. I thought you might want to know. I know calculating commissions can get complex, so if there's something I can do to make it easier for Jane, I'd be more than happy to!

A good boss will take that information, have a chat with Jane and the payroll problem will be fixed.

However, the resentment issue may linger. While this is the other person's problem to deal with, it can spill over in to your interactions. In this case, it's time to have a chat directly with the other employee.

Jane: You salespeople make so much money, but all you do is make phone calls all day! I could do that.
You: I understand you're looking toward getting licensed so you can do sales as well. That's great. If you need any help studying for your test, let me know. I did the best on Section A, but I can probably give you tips on everything.

That's called being nice. How can she complain about you when you're offering to help her reach a goal? You can make such an offer in any situation where you're in a higher position. Promotions don't always require licensing, but most do require extra skills.

Don't worry about someone sneaking up from behind. Remember, you can't be promoted either until someone can take your place.

Pay can be a touchy subject, and until our culture changes, it will continue to be so. Remain positive and helpful, and try to make it a nonissue. Involve your boss when it gets touchy and, above all, keep doing a great job.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to

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