How to get salary equalized using "inside information"
February 3, 2009 9:55 AM   Subscribe

Recently got confirmed that I am being severely underpaid and want to find out how to go about getting my salary "equalized" ... the catch is that the information was accidentally made available to me and I don't know if/how I can use it to my advantage.

The backstory: work in retail banking as a Branch Manager (BM) with 10+ years of experience in a "community" commercial bank. Said bank was swallowed by much larger commercial bank. BMs in our bank were told we weren't as qualified as big bank BMs and we would need to "prove" ourselves to big bank to get into salary range. A year goes by, I'm a top performer in sales and service, constantly told I'm "the best" in my region.

Meanwhile, natural attrition occurs and new BMs are hired on. Suspect they're being hired at the larger salary range because they come from other big banks. I go with the flow and wait until annual review time to gather my statistics and show I've been proving myself and then ask for the raise.

Second meanwhile, big bank is swallowed by another, bigger bank a few short months before annual review process! Same story - we might not be "qualified" and need to prove ourselves, etc, but we don't yet know because we're still mid-merger and technically working as two separate companies.

The kicker - my boss recently (accidentally) gave me access to the HR information about my entire district, which I found as I was trying to look at my own employee's information. CONFIRMED! I'm being massively underpaid compared to the folks who have been hired in after our first merger. Ranges are from $15K to $25K per year more. We're doing the same job. I have more experience. I'm a top performer and they aren't. Lucky them, they were hired in direct with big bank and I was part of the previous merger.

So, my questions are:

#1 - Do I tell manager that they gave me access they shouldn't have? (Mgr is an idiot when it comes to all things technical and probably would never even find out).

#2 - Now that I'm seething with the information, is there any way I can use it to my advantage? I should never have seen this and had to click into a second area to really see the info, it wasn't just on the splash page, so ethically, I shouldn't have "clicked".

#3 - Assuming I didn't have confirmation of the salary range issues, how would I best go about requesting an equalizing pay before or during the merger?

#4 - Is there any sort of discrimination/complaint/law suit possible here on a "equal pay for equal work" concept? The people being underpaid and overpaid are mixes of races, genders, etc, so it's not an old boys club concept.

#5 - How do I continue working here, knowing I'm so underpaid when I'm constantly told I'm the best? I feel completely insulted. I get the business sense of them getting a "bargain" but I'm pissed, too.

Sorry for the length, anon to protect myself, but I wanted to provide as much detail as possible.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Let's get the the last two questions out of the way first:

4) There is no legal concept of "equal pay for equal work." If there were, why would we have salary negotiations in the first place?

5) A company that pays you as much as possible is a badly managed company. Companies only pay you the amount that maximizes the ratio of your useful output to your salary. If you're not willing to accept that, you're not going to find any place better to work.

Now, the harder question:

1) If you feel like you have an obligation to the company, dispel this notion. The only reason you should tell your company is either to use it as leverage for a raise or if you think you'd be fired solely for not telling him. I'd suggest the former, but the latter might come into effect if there are data privacy requirements at your work.

2) Why do you think you can't use it to your advantage? You can simply tell your employer "I accidentally saw that employee Bob gets paid $15k more than me. I didn't mean to, but this raises questions about my own compensation." I'm not even sure it's necessary to say that you know the information - you can use it to your advantage later. Even if they don't know you know your coworkers salaries, they still know you're underpaid. If they try to offer you a raise in between what you make and what you think you should make, then you can use the fact for more effect.

3) The merger only matters if you think the new company is more or less amiable to a salary increase. Chose the company that is more amiable to a salary increase and make a request. There's nothing special about it - people do it all the time. I'd suggest being blunt, but I have no notion of subtlety. It's a simple business case - "I think I'm underpaid. If you don't increase my pay, I will have to consider other options for employment."
posted by saeculorum at 10:21 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

#1 No!

#2 Yes, you know how much you can push for (assuming you're as good at your job as these other people). You just have to do it without mentioning #1

#3 Well, you don't ask for 'equalizing' for a start. You just craft a nice letter (or arrange to speak with your boss) outlining how good you are at your job, all the good things you've brought to the role, and add something vague about how you don't feel that your current rate of pay adequately reflects your contribution.

#4 No. It's perfectly common for people in similar positions in the same company to be earning different salaries. Maybe not entirely ethical, but common nevertheless.

#5 You don't get resentful. You just work on getting your pay increased. Remember, if they need to replace you, they'll probably end up paying more anyway. Or you move on if you feel the grass is greener.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 10:23 AM on February 3, 2009

It never hurts to update your resume and test the waters. If BMs are being hired at your company it may also be happening elsewhere. Just see what's out there.
posted by doorsfan at 10:35 AM on February 3, 2009

#1. No.

#2. What do you mean, "shouldn't have clicked?" You had access. It's not a big ethics question. You found information in a file accessible to you. Yes, you should use it to your advantage - but not specifically mention that you saw the file. Just that you have incontrovertible evidence. [print the file out while you still have access and keep it really safe].

#3. Disregard this question. All your future negotiations are going to be based on your knowledge of the going rate, and you're selling yourself short right now.

#4. There are indeed laws, and important ones, relating to equality in pay, but the triggering factor is whether there was unfair discrimination used - as in an example where a male and female with comparable experience and skill and performance were paid different wages. IF the pattern is, as you say, random, it's likely that it didn't come about through systematic discrimination but through happenstance and a lot of variation in HR and management as these acquisitions went forward.

#5. Advocate for yourself. No one is going to stand up for you in this situation but yourself. Figure out who currently has power over wages and make an appointment to see them - explain that your review schedule was disrupted by mergers, delineate your performance history with emphasis on your successes (and hard evidence), and then mention that you've become aware that you have dropped behind in terms of salary and that you would like to request a raise that would bring you up to $XXXXX a year. Plain and simple.

Don't talk about where or how you found the comparitive wage information - they can't get it out of you and you don't have to admit it. For all they know, you're just friends with the other people and have been comparing notes. Just be clear that you know others are getting more and that you know you deserve at least as much as them, and why.

Their response will probably give you some perspective on how great a workplace this is. Yes, employeers seek to maximize profit, but they end up taking losses when they lose a good employee to a better paying firm, and have to enter the costly hiring/clearance/training/break-in cycle with new staff. Over time these inefficiencies hurt the bottom line, which is why enlightened workplaces work to reduce these inequalities. Your feedback to them, and what they do with it, are important pieces of the company's longterm management and survival plan.
posted by Miko at 10:42 AM on February 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Oh, and don't - please don't - make the mistake of showing this information to your colleagues or talking about it with anyone other than the supervisor with the power to change your wages. That's a terrible can of worms to open and could just ruin your position there.
posted by Miko at 10:43 AM on February 3, 2009

(i) The economy is bad in and of itself. (ii) Your specific field has companies (banks) within it heavily downsizing, closing, or going into bankruptcy left and right. (iii) POTUS: "They're going to have to write down those losses, and some banks won't make it." (iv) You want to make it substantially more costly to your company to keep you as an employee.

I understand why the feelings spawned from the inequity would want to prompt you to action. It strikes me as phenomenally bad timing, however.
posted by WCityMike at 10:45 AM on February 3, 2009

#2. What do you mean, "shouldn't have clicked?" You had access. It's not a big ethics question. You found information in a file accessible to you. Yes, you should use it to your advantage

Repeat after me: "I never saw the information." Now, purge that information from your mind.

You admitted that you were in the wrong when you clicked on the information. You knew it ahead of time, looked anyway, and didn't report the error in access to the appropriate authorities. If you use that information to your advantage and it ever comes out later, you will probably be summarily fired. And if you get fired as a BM due to an ethics breach, you have very little chance of getting another job as a BM.

On the other hand, if you find another BM job that pays significantly more, you are on better ground. You either leave the indiscretions behind at your current employer, or at the very least you have used a more honest approach to raising your salary without having to leave.
posted by Doohickie at 11:01 AM on February 3, 2009

Start looking for a new job. Once you feel like you have some traction there, try negotiating a new salary at your current employer. I wouldn't say anything about knowing what other people are making. For one thing, they may decide to fire you for it. For another, I don't think you need to. You know what they are willing to pay people who are underperforming you. You know what they've paid to hire new people who are underperforming you. Given that, you have a reasonable idea of what they'll be willing to pay you. Start by asking for more than that. Never except less than that. Arguably, your minimum should take into account the fact that you are a known quantity.

#1 This is complicated. Ethically, you should probably let them know you were given access to this information, but I find the ethics in negotiations where there is a strong asymmetry in power and information between the two parties to be an ethically murky area in the first place. I think you've already seen that they are not dealing fairly with you.

From a practical perspective, they might be able to discover that you accessed the information, and if they are able, they might actually do so. In that case they might terminate you or sanction you for trying to negotiate a new salary while drawing on privileged information.

#2 You have information on what they are paying people who underperform you, and what they are paying new hires who underperform you. When you renegotiate your salary, start by asking for more than that. Never accept less than that. You are probably worth a premium over any new hire, because you are a known quantity with good performance.

#3 You could just be a squeaky wheel and not take no for an answer about reviewing your compensation. You could also give yourself some leverage by starting a new job search, and waiting until you have an offer in hand before asking them to make a counter offer.

#4 Good luck with that.

#5 I don't think you should continue working there while being underpaid. Start the wheels moving on finding a new job and/or negotiating a new salary. It sounds like you are holding a good hand.
posted by Good Brain at 11:11 AM on February 3, 2009

You definitely don't say you know this information. However, you do know it, and you can't un-know it. You can ask for a raise, you can say the reason is you feel like you're not paid what BM's are going for these days, and/or that your desired salary is X. You can basically project the impression that you know what you're talking about. You know you're right, and they know it*. They may suspect you know, but that only makes your position better. Do not blow the polite fiction by saying that you definitely know, much less how. Then they will be damn near required to fire you, simple mistake or not.

*Except that they may feel at the moment, as WCityMike points out, that the OTHER BMs are costing too much right now, and that your salary is more reasonable, or that they could stand to combine a BM with another branch, or something. I wouldn't issue any ultimatums unless you know what you're doing.
posted by ctmf at 1:18 PM on February 3, 2009

Gah, I meant to strike my first paragraph.
posted by Good Brain at 1:21 PM on February 3, 2009

My major client is a bank. My major client's rules may not be the same as yours, but that's where I'm coming from in my answers.

#1 - Do I tell manager that they gave me access they shouldn't have? (Mgr is an idiot when it comes to all things technical and probably would never even find out).

Yes. Simply mention you noticed you seem to have some access you shouldn't have. You want this access revoked, at your instigation, so you aren't tempted to misuse it again, and you aren't caught out in an internal audit.

#2 - Now that I'm seething with the information, is there any way I can use it to my advantage? I should never have seen this and had to click into a second area to really see the info, it wasn't just on the splash page, so ethically, I shouldn't have "clicked".

Bear in mind that in many banks you may have access to things that you aren't meant to fiddle with anyway - my client's rules include blanket things you aren't allowed to do even if you have legitimate access to a system (transactions on behalf of other people without appropriate forms, transactions on behalf of family members, looking at peoples' accounts without a valid business reason to do so, such as a customer query).

If you end up saying something like "I was clicking on stuff I shouldn't", well, I see pain in your future.

On the other hand, you can use the information as a wake-up call. You haven't negotiated well over the years, and your employer is happy to have someone working cheaply. You can look at a number of routes to go with this as the basis for a renegotiation: claim to have looked at salary surveys, or talked to colleagues in similar roles at similar institutions, and haggle your way up.

#3 - Assuming I didn't have confirmation of the salary range issues, how would I best go about requesting an equalizing pay before or during the merger?

As I say, use the information as a springboard. Do a litte research. Find a salary survey you can cite. Talk to recruiters. Write to one of those "What am I worth" columns that many industry rags run.

Note, though, you're in a recession with your industry hit hard. You aren't in a great negotiating position, because, well, what are you gonna do? Quit?
posted by rodgerd at 1:23 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I worked at a bank for a short period of time, and the dual payscale evolved there for the same reasons you cite.

That being said, I am seconding the advice of Miko, WCityMike and rodgerd. Please think realistically about the degree of leverage (or lack thereof) you have in this situation.
posted by xena at 1:45 PM on February 3, 2009

Having given this more thought, I think rodgerd's advice is best for keeping your nose clean in this economy - and learning how to represent yourself best in this messed-up economy so that you can negotiate a salary commensurate with your performance. I'm not in banking and it's hard for me to evaluate the ethics involved. I don't blame you for looking, and you got some terribly useful information, but you're probably best off doing the journalist's trick of finding a way to get a source on record, above-board, with what you already know to be true.
posted by Miko at 2:28 PM on February 3, 2009

Given the economy, personally, I'd (a) try to get a job offer from elsewhere, (b) figure "well, they'll fire me last. But that's a very risk averse position.
posted by salvia at 5:29 PM on February 3, 2009

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