Exactly What to Do When You Find Out You Make Less Money Than a Colleague


Some companies are moving to salary transparency, but most of us don’t have a sense of what our colleagues make. Often times compensation is mash up of base salaries, possibly discretionary bonuses, and other perks. This can make it hard to know if you’re being paid what you are worth.

As a best practice, make it part of your personal annual review to understand the market and if you’re being paid fairly. The odds are, you might not be. We all know that women make less money than men, even when adjusted for comparable careers. Black women and other minorities have an even wider pay gap. The bottom line: you absolutely deserve to be paid what others are paid for the same job. If you find out you are making less than a colleague in the same role or with similar skills, start taking these steps.


Take a beat

Our first instinct when we find out we’re underpaid is an emotional reaction, and it’s a completely justifiable emotional reaction. That said, storming in to your boss’s office or releasing that emotion on colleagues or the higher-earning coworker isn’t going to get results without a clear plan.

Save the disappointment and venting for a discussion with a non-work friend or partner. We want to be able to respond, not react. Then, get to work.


Assess your case and its urgency

First, assess your own performance and qualifications relative to the person you received this information from. Also acknowledge whether that person has any biased reason to share this info. You want to be sure you’re working off of factual data—not hearsay.

Ensure that you are dealing with “like for like” experience, education, and scope of responsibilities if you are looking for an immediate adjustment. What would you be paid if you went out on the open market right now? Is it only slightly different? If so, you might consider starting to build a case for a more substantial annual increase around review time, as opposed to a more urgent discussion with your manager.


Prepare with data

Reaching out to your HR partner to talk salaries could be shared with your boss. But, it’s an important part of your research and being informed about your prospects at the company. Here, it’s best to ask in terms of salary bands. Get an understanding for the maximum and minimum compensation for your role. Where do you fall?

Use tools to get a sense of what you could command on the open market. Economic conditions will dictate this somewhat, but analytics from places like Salary can help you leverage market data to better understand your case.

“Data” is also about building a solid case around your work performance and skills. Draw on any past performance reviews or your own personal kudos file to help build your case.


Set up a meeting with your boss

Some planning can help your outcome here. Don’t spring this on your manager or approach it as an aside in another meeting. Set a dedicated appointment letting them know you’d like to talk about your compensation. Ideally, this gives them the opportunity to do their own research or have conversations with HR about what might be possible.


Keep the focus on yourself

You want to use neutral and factual language. Something like, “It’s come to my attention that others are being paid more than me for the same job.” How you found out and who you found out from should be kept out of the discussion if at all possible. You want the focus of the conversation to be on your talents and skills and how they’re being under-compensated.

It can also be tempting to use this as an opportunity to express that you feel undervalued or slighted. If your goal is to stay with this company, you want to stay positive. “I am really happy here and would love to grow my career at the company. How can we be sure I’m staying competitively paid with my peer group?”  

Now, it’s arguable that if you are dramatically underpaid you’ve lost some faith in this company and you should be on to greener pastures. Buy yourself some time at fair market compensation and see our last point.


Go beyond “no”

An immediate salary raise may not be possible for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s a tough economic climate, or your company exclusively addresses compensation once per year. You have three options here:

  • OK, so when? Ask your manager when you could revisit this discussion. What would need to change to say yes? If you have fairly made your case, this should not be about them needing to see additional “success” out of your performance.
  • OK, so what else? Compensation is not just base salary. Could they consider a bonus? Additional time off? Pay for more education or skill development? If any of these additional aspects of compensation bring meaningful value to your career you could consider them interim solutions.
  • OK, so what’s next? This discussion may clue you in to a culture or company that is simply not prepared to pay you fairly. It might be time to start exploring other options, engaging recruiters, and applying for other jobs. You’ll find out quickly what your true market value is.


How have you championed your own equal pay?