"It inappropriate to compare the salaries of 2 people that I manage."
September 22, 2017 7:05 AM   Subscribe

I work at an American startup. I remotely manage a two person team that is based in London. My boss tells me that it is inappropriate to compare the salaries of the two people, even though the rockstar performer is being paid less - and is a woman. I don't understand why. I could use advice on how to handle this as well as the overall sexist culture.

I am a woman working under a man named Mitch. Mitch asked me if I would take over the management of the London team. I am their fifth direct report that they've had in the past year. The woman and man were hired at the same time for the same position, but the man was paid slightly more.

The man has been slacking off for the past several months, and I'm working to correct his behavior. Very reasonably, the woman is frustrated with taking on his slack as well as some of the duties that their first manager passed on to her.

She finally admitted to me that she knows that she makes less than he does, and that she was told by her previous manager that she would have a compensation discussion two months ago (but that never happened).

We can't afford for her to leave - we would loose ground at a critical time. I brought the compensation discussion up with my boss, pointing out she does more work but makes less. My boss, Mitch, was it was inappropriate to compare their salaries. I didn't get clarification why.

Why, exactly, is this appropriate? After all, this is the main data point I know.

Also, this is a very clear exhibit of what is going on in the rest of the company - where women have to be absolute rockstars to (maybe) get anywhere, while the men can be mediocre. I am jumping ship in a few months, so I can afford to rock the boat. How can I get them to see that this is detrimental to the business environment that they want to have?
posted by anonymous to Technology (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's 100% appropriate! Mitch sounds like a bad manager/misogynistic asshole/general idiot.

Ask Mitch why it's not appropriate! Ask him why you should pay more for worse work, when this woman is likely to leave over it and it leaves your company open to discrimination charges, both of which would be bad for the company, aside from just being the wrong thing to do.

The best way to show them what idiots they're being would be to convince the underpaid women to bring a suit against the company (or leave en masse).
posted by mskyle at 7:10 AM on September 22, 2017 [35 favorites]


It's not inappropriate - for managers, to them this discussion means paying someone more to compensate for a disparity. Fairness is not a managerial goal for most companies. Managers hate anything that negatively affects their budget/own targets, so avoiding this discussion achieves their goal.

If your goal is to get the woman paid, I would tell your boss that, in your opinion, not paying her at a level for what she is producing is creating significant risk that another company will poach her. If they still don't do anything about it, then my advice on your way out the door is to offer the woman the world's best reference and contacts if and when she decides to jump ship. Get her out of an environment that doesn't appreciate her for one that does.
posted by notorious medium at 7:28 AM on September 22, 2017 [21 favorites]


It's totally appropriate; Mitch simply doesn't want to deal with it. Since you're responsible for the people under you, it's your job to make him deal with it, though of course you will want to do so in a way that pisses him off as little as possible. Emphasize the fact that the woman is frustrated and her departure would harm the company.
posted by languagehat at 7:29 AM on September 22, 2017 [10 favorites]


Yes, he sounds like a bad manager. So since he is apparently digging in his heels about this, bring it up without it being about her slary compared to someone else's.

"I'm worry we'll lose GoodWorker to if we don't increase her salary. Since her last raise, she's taken on $task, $task, $task, which were previously manager-level tasks, and additionally is doing 70% of the work on our big project despite being one of two people on the project. If we lose her, I expect the project to be delayed by X months as we find a replacement and get them up to speed. She was to have a compensation discussion two months ago, it hasn't happened, and she needs to know where she stands in the future."

Otherwise, do as notorious medium says. Sometimes the best best thing to do is get people out and then let them use their legal means if they choose to.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:30 AM on September 22, 2017 [37 favorites]


It's not inappropriate at all. What Mitch means is that it's inconvenient (for him to have to justify it), so he wants you to drop it. But inappropriate, no.

Tell your higher ups that by not paying her equitably, they are going to lose an excellent employee and then face the inconvenience of having to replace her (and the expense--it costs money as well as time to do new hires).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:35 AM on September 22, 2017 [5 favorites]


Pretty much what everyone else said--it's just one of those things managers say when they don't have enough money in the budget or enough motivation or enough whatever to deal with it. (The one exception would be if you think slacking employee is horribly overpaid, then you fight against that becoming the "new normal" for everyone else who's even slightly better. That happens.)

Regarding what everyone else said, I'll point out that if you make the reasonable argument about replacement costs and her leaving meaning you just have one sub-par employee in that group, they may not act right away but when you leave they may suddenly take it to heart.

If this is a big company make sure you've checked salary ranges, options for equity adjustments during review periods, etc.
posted by mark k at 7:44 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Mitch is either deliberately shirking the responsibility or, possibly, he is confused, since it is common for employees to be told that they have no business comparing their salaries to each other (and there are good reasons for this.) But, obviously, it is exactly the responsibility of a manager to make sure her reports are compensated in a way that maximizes retention of the best performers (and to avoid potential legal action, in the case of something that looks like sex discrimination.)

So you have two issues. How to pay your rockstar more so she wants to stay despite having had to pick up the other guy's slack; and, very possibly, how to discipline the other guy.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:49 AM on September 22, 2017 [4 favorites]


It's not inappropriate at all. What Mitch means is that it's inconvenient (for him to have to justify it), so he wants you to drop it. But inappropriate, no.

I have been in this situation (as the underpaid woman) working for a website you would all recognize. People like Mitch suck and don't think they're part of the problem but are very definitely part of the problem. I would start out by trying to turn this less into a conversation about comparative salaries and more into one about "How do we more fairly compensate our rockstar who is doing more than her share of the work?"

And if that doesn't get any traction I'd push more on why it's supposedly inappropriate because I agree with others that it's likely just a convo Mitch doesn't want to have. It's likely the man is being paid more because he negotiated for it but that does NOT have anything to do with why the woman has not gotten a compensation discussion. Because, look, either money is really tight and the company is in trouble and can't do anything moneywise (I assume you would know if that were the case) or this company is just perpetuating industry sexism and even if this isn't a thing they care about, they might care about not looking like bad guys, maybe?

Push Mitch. Tell the woman you manage that you are doing this. Encourage her to also push for a salary review. Thanks for doing the right thing. I wish someone had did that for me.
posted by jessamyn at 7:57 AM on September 22, 2017 [47 favorites]


it's likely the man is being paid more because he negotiated for it

I agree that this is probably totally true, and your boss shouldn't miss the fact that she is negotiating now.

I've also been in this situation. Pay disparity is largely enabled by salary secrecy. Once women know what their peers are being paid, they become much more likely to ask for what they deserve. Let him know that she's negotiating and you risk losing her, and be able to demonstrate how productive she is. Even a direct 1:1 comparison of their output, if you can do that, wouldn't be too much to show him.

Thanks for taking on the good fight.
posted by Miko at 8:02 AM on September 22, 2017 [10 favorites]


"it is common for employees to be told that they have no business comparing their salaries to each other (and there are good reasons for this.)"

Not really. The reason for this is to avoid the situation that OP and her employee have found themselves in. Management discourages workers from discussing salary because they don't want some of them to realize that management is treating them unfairly. This is the only reason I've ever encountered for such a prohibition.

OP: Bring it up again to Mitch, but don't frame it as a fairness issue this time. Point out the great work she's been doing, and mention that her compensation review is overdue. As her manager, you feel that she has earned a raise of [number that puts her well above the other guy's salary]. Ultimately, though, you should probably start looking elsewhere, because Mitch sounds like an asshole. If you're lucky, you can take your good employee with you and get her out of this.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:20 AM on September 22, 2017 [12 favorites]


"Inappropriate" sounds like tone-policing to me (ie, standard-issue sexism).
posted by Dashy at 8:23 AM on September 22, 2017 [11 favorites]


Why hasn't the man been fired? If he's slacking off, why bother trying to correct it? He's an adult. He knows exactly what he's doing and is choosing to slack off instead because he doesn't believe he'll be fired.

If the woman can't be given a raise, at the very least the man needs to be fired and replaced with someone who works just as hard as the woman for the same pay.
posted by parakeetdog at 8:34 AM on September 22, 2017 [10 favorites]


Frankly, if he doesn't get his shit together and realize that:

he's liable to get the company sued (where's HR in all this?)
he's not promoting the company expansion by his actions
he's going to lose a valuable hard working, self- staring worker bee vs a slacker
he's liable to lose YOU if you can't stand to see this type of inequality and are willing to watch this continue go down (you don't have to mention you're leaving anyway)
and if you do bail, tell him you'll out the company to ALL the women working for the company* as well as to the larger community and the media. Maybe the publicity will sink their ship.

Not only is the prestige male getting paid more, but he's also doing a piss-poor job. I can't imagine this can't be brought to a higher authority.

*I think all the women ought to be advised of this anyway. Class action suit? Hooray!
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


Why hasn't the man been fired? If he's slacking off, why bother trying to correct it?

Because "slacking off" doesn't mean "isn't getting any work done," and firing and hiring a replacement is expensive. They're likely losing less money with an underperforming person than they would for the hassle of replacing - at least, if he's only slacking for a while. If he's dragging things down for years, then a replacement is cheaper, but if he's "just in a slump," it's worth more to the company in the long run to keep him around.

... At least, that's the economic theory. The actuality is more likely "he's a great guy!" and firing a man because he's not meeting expectations is just Not Done without some kind of external push - budget crunch is the most common, but complaints from other departments or a desire to bring in a specific someone else are also possible.

But none of that means they should be paying Ms. Rockstar less than him. He's getting the Slacking But Tolerable wages; she should be getting Rockstar wages.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2017


Also - as well as continuing to push this yourself, if you've not done so already, informally let Rockstar know that you will back her in any request she makes for a pay review. That will embolden her to push again. I've been in her position, and having the reassurance that my line manager, who knew my work, would stand up and say "Yes, she absolutely deserves this" reassured me I wasn't being ludicrous and pushy (as so many of us rockstar women tell ourselves we are, which is why we're still underpaid).

You might have done that already, and of course harder to do if you're working remotely and can't swing by and say that to her verbally, but just thought it was worth mentioning.

The Fawcett Society
does a lot of campaigning on the gender pay gap in the UK. I've only skimmed that page, so I don't know if they can offer any specific advice on your situation, but might be worth a poke around to see if they have any advice on how to proceed, legal situation in the UK etc.
posted by penguin pie at 9:37 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


The best way to get a raise in a corporate setting is to get a higher offer elsewhere.

Coach her to advocate for herself by going out and interviewing. Once she has an offer in hand, she can ask the current company to match (or exceed) it. You can then help by attesting to her good work. Corporate logic will dictate the response. She has to be ready to leave.

The other way is for you to give her a promotion with expanded responsibilities, which then justifies a raise.

(It's hard to get a raise based on "but he/she/I do such great work!" because that's pretty much what everybody says, all the time.)

"I am jumping ship in a few months, so I can afford to rock the boat."

When you get to your new job, have her interview and extend a higher offer that she can use as she wishes.

(This may or may not apply to your industry and her position.)
posted by metaseeker at 9:50 AM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


I should add that I've been the man in this situation before (not in pay differential, but in terms of performance), and I would absolutely be supportive of female colleagues getting raises to make more than me. I'd like to think most men would agree, although that's pretty naive of me. But if the underperforming guy is aware of the differential and he's not an asshole, you might be able to enlist his help in rectifying it.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:06 AM on September 22, 2017


On a basic level, if Mitch thinks that the argument that comparing two different employee salaries is not compelling, then push forward with the other arguments you're making here: She's a strong performer, she was already told she would have a compensation discussion at a certain point, and you can't afford to lose her.

If/When you get pushback from Mitch, if you're not satisfied with the answers or reasons, then escalate above Mitch or to HR. There are sometimes reasons here that aren't necessarily sexist - or which make it difficult to address a inequity that arose from an initially sexist assumption/hiring process - eg, someone is generally overpaid, the department has been told specifically that there are to be no salary adjustments, the department head is arguing for budget for something else, etc.

I have used regular peformance review season to right-size inequities by giving the strong and/or underpaid performer a higher increase than the weak performer.
posted by vunder at 10:55 AM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


We can't afford for her to leave - we would loose ground at a critical time. I brought the compensation discussion up with my boss, pointing out she does more work but makes less. My boss, Mitch, was it was inappropriate to compare their salaries. I didn't get clarification why.

Why, exactly, is this appropriate? After all, this is the main data point I know


Frankly, if she's that good, I would encourage her to find another job and (hopefully) quit during this critical period, and encourage her to be very explicit as to the reasons why. They're not going to correct their behavior without consequences.

Alternatively, she can use another offer to force the company's hand. I understand paying a more productive and experienced employee more if they happen to be male. But that damn sure better work both ways. This kind of thing is ridiculous and shouldn't tolerated. If she has to be seen as "difficult" to be treated fairly, so be it.
posted by cnc at 11:28 AM on September 22, 2017 [3 favorites]


Pay disparity is largely enabled by salary secrecy. Once women know what their peers are being paid, they become much more likely to ask for what they deserve.

I would favourite this 100 times if I could.

Sexism thrives when women are kept unaware that the situation they're in is structurally maintained and not due to individual factors. It's harder to keep a lid on things when women become aware of the inequity. Mitch doesn't want you talking about this because it removes plausible deniability that the company isn't sexist.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:43 AM on September 22, 2017 [11 favorites]


Why hasn't the man been fired? If he's slacking off, why bother trying to correct it? He's an adult.

It's not especially easy to fire people in London. You need improvement plans, and the like.
posted by ambrosen at 1:42 PM on September 22, 2017


The best way to get a raise in a corporate setting is to get a higher offer elsewhere.

I (woman in tech in the US) have had good success at least once with the slightly less confrontational approach of "Hey, it's come to my attention that I'm making much less than market value. I'm happy here, and I'd like to stay, so I'm hoping we can do something here."

But, yeah, the only reason it's inappropriate to compare salaries like that is it makes it very awkward for the people in the hot seat for "why are you still overcompensating that guy and undercompensating that gal"
posted by rmd1023 at 2:55 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Your boss sucks. It's not inappropriate. In fact, the best way for an employer to think about the salaries of their employees is by the value they bring to the company. Your female subordinate brings more value than the guy does.

I would bring this up not as an issue of equity or fairness, but value and in making sure she stays. She has clearly spoken to you about her salary, so you can tell your boss that she has asked for more money and you are worried that if you guys don't increase her pay, she will look elsewhere and you can't afford to lose her.
posted by AppleTurnover at 5:41 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


Frankly, if she's that good, I would encourage her to find another job and (hopefully) quit during this critical period, and encourage her to be very explicit as to the reasons why. They're not going to correct their behavior without consequences.

That's great advice for the employee in question, but likely rather poor advice for the person asking this question, who is evaluated on how well the unit does, which means keeping current employees through the critical period.

That said, I think there is a lot you can do as the immediate supervisor to push for pay raises. I'd note that in the US context at least, it's usually advised that you shouldn't ask for a raise by saying "But that guy earns more than me," but rather by saying "I am worth more because of reasons X, Y, and Z, and I am aware of my market value." If that's the context your boss is working from, then the argument for increasing her salary is going to be based a blend of her contributions and market comparisons (eg, this quarter she has kicked ass in these ways, and we are at risk for losing her because people with her qualifications typically earn more).

I agree that it isn't wrong to compare the two employees' salaries (and failing to honestly do that appears to be why Google is currently under scrutiny), but if that is a non-starter with your boss, then I'd pick a different strategy that might be the right result via a different path.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:42 PM on September 22, 2017 [1 favorite]


I am putting on my evil corporate hat here because sexism is definitely at play but Mitch may be obtuse to the argument. In this situation (I am also manager) I would out together the math: she has/is doing X, Y, Z and this is how that benefits the bottom line, here is the cost of losing and replacing her. Unfortunately the money argument may be the only way to win. If not, this is a really strong argument to follow up on higher up.

I also think supporting her and making candid her market value would be huge. We lost one employee because we weren't paying her what she deserved. Not my department or decision, but she appreciated the support and reference. Sometimes that's the best way to help someone in a situation this difficult. But I would argue that as her lead, she deserves the plain finances argument on up from you.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 7:55 PM on September 22, 2017 [2 favorites]


Do you control a bonus pool for this group? Zero slackerdude and give it all to the rockstar.
posted by thenormshow at 2:34 PM on September 23, 2017


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