Are You Being Paid Fairly?

Beth Braccio Hering, special to CareerBuilder

salaryWhen Rebecca Shu*, an employee at a sportswear company, inherited some reports from another division, she quickly spotted a problem. "The Caucasian employee that was junior level made 40 percent more than the African American employees doing more senior-level work."

She also found out about another problem. "The last two years of reviews, managers of minority employees were instructed to lower their job review scores as it was predetermined that no raises or promotions were to be given, and the reviews had to justify it, regardless of actual performance," Shu states. "Meanwhile, the two Caucasian employees of that division were given promotions."

While it may be uncomfortable to work in such an atmosphere, workers are oftentimes afraid to say or do anything for fear of losing their own job. Others are blatantly told to keep their thoughts to themselves.

When Jill O'Conner* took a job at an independent film company, she assumed a position held by a younger man. "I came to the job having been a national director of publicity at a film production and distribution company," O'Conner states. While she could document that she was more qualified, she was paid less. "When I complained, my boss told me to 'be a good girl' and be quiet." And she was.

-- See differences in pay between genders for K-12 teachers, pilots & waiters/waitresses.

Not all paychecks are created equal

While equal pay for equal work should be a fundamental right, the fact remains that differences exist. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the earnings disparity between black or Hispanic workers and Asian or white workers holds steady across all major occupational groups.

Consider these BLS findings:

  • In 2008, median usual weekly earnings of Asian men ($1,403) and white men ($1,255) working full time in management, professional and related occupations were well above the earnings of Hispanic men ($1,002) and black men ($892) in the same occupations.

  • Hispanic and black men employed in production, transportation and material moving occupations had median earnings of $514 and $559 per week, respectively, which were less than the median earnings of their white ($658) or Asian ($585) counterparts.

  • In management, professional and related occupations the earnings of black women ($763) and Hispanic women ($775) were around 85 percent of those of white women ($900).

While these statistics might lead a worker to assume the worst if faced with a paycheck that is less than what she thinks she deserves, approaching this sensitive issue with care can be the key to resolution.

Factors affecting salary

"Many factors can influence pay rates," says John Millikin, a professor in the management department at Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business in Tempe, AZ, and a former vice president of human resources at Motorola Inc. in Phoenix. "Most compensation systems have pay ranges for specific skills and/or responsibility levels. Within a pay range or 'grade' there can be many reasons for variations. These can include performance, seniority/experience (both in the skill and within the firm) and starting salary in that position. (Did the person start high or low in the range of the pay grade?)"

Linda Matias, author of 201 Knockout Answers to Tough Interview Questions: The Ultimate Guide to Handling the New Competency-Based Interview Style, echoes these thoughts as possible explanations for paycheck differences among similar employees.

"The person's colleagues may have been better prepared for the salary negotiations during the interview or at their performance review. By preparation I mean that they took the time to write down their accomplishments and bring it to the manager's attention. That list connects the dots for the decision and brings to the forefront key reasons they are worth more. In addition, they may have done their homework and researched the average salary for their profession and demonstrated why they fall above the bell curve."

-- See differences in pay between genders for graphic designers, flight attendants & physicians.

A plan for success

If, after examining other factors, an employee still believes that something is unfair, experts generally suggest proceeding carefully and keeping emotions in check.

Matias recommends coming up with a strategic plan focusing on the following:

  • Volunteering for assignments

  • Providing ideas during meetings

  • Being a team player by lending a hand to colleagues

  • Refraining from speaking negatively about the company

  • Not participating in rumors

Then, after three to six months of implementing this plan, the employee should request a meeting to outline these recent accomplishments and ask for a raise.

"Most of us would prefer not to be in an adversarial position with our own employer," Millikin points out. "Likewise, most companies would rather resolve any unintended problem internally." If you feel comfortable doing so, he suggests going to your human resources department and requesting a confidential review in which your direct supervisor is not contacted and you are given feedback on the results before you decide if you want to pursue the matter further.

Filing a charge

Valerie Rawlston Wilson, vice president of research for the National Urban League, notes that workers who think they are suffering from pay discrimination can file a charge with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A worker filing a charge will be asked for various pieces of information, including a description of what is believed to be discriminatory, on what basis and any supporting documentation.

The EEOC can help an employee decide whether or not his situation is covered by the laws it enforces. If a charge is filed, the EEOC may try to settle the dispute through mediation -- an informal and confidential way to resolve disputes with the help of a neutral mediator. If the case is not sent to mediation, or if mediation doesn't resolve the problem, the charge is given to an investigator.

Next:Down With Performance Reviews >>


More information can be found on the EEOC's Web site ( or by calling its national contact center (1-800-669-4000).

*Names changed to protect privacy

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