I Found Out My Male Colleague Made More Than Me

Here is a fun WWYD:

I’ve been temping at Company X, a large company in Chicago, since the beginning of last August. I started temping here because I’d heard it was a good way to get hired on full time, and I liked the company. While I was here, my boss fought to get me hired, but she was turned down. I decided to change careers and go back to grad school.

My last day is this Friday. I start school in June. I will probably never live in this town again, not to mention never work in this industry.

When I started out here, I was making $12 an hour. I clearly remember the interview at the temp agency — I said that I really wanted to work at Company X, and I had made about $40K in past jobs. The first, last, and only time I’d temped, it had been for $14/hour, and I expected something similar. (I had knowingly taken a pay cut, and decided to temp, in order to change careers).

“We really can’t do that,” said the woman interviewing me, “but we can start you out at $12. Would that be ok?” She did that passive/aggressive thing where she made it my choice to say yes or no, but also made it clear that being considered to temp at Company X was contingent on taking a huge pay cut. I conceded.

A couple months into temping at Company X, I was talking to a friend and fellow temp who had been brought on at the same time as me. Let’s call him George. “I just can’t take another week of this $14 per hour,” he said. “I need a raise.”

“$14 per hour?” I said. “Excuse me?”

We then had a brief conversation where it became obvious that George’s initial conversation with the temp agency had gone quite differently. He’d asked for $14, and they’d said fine. George and I are the exact same age, with similar backgrounds, although it sounds like I’ve been paid a tad higher than he has in the past. Even in this honest conversation, I felt a little tentative — I’m prohibited from discussing my compensation at work. We did determine, though, that we’d been given very different job descriptions when we were brought on, despite the fact that we were doing literally the same thing.

I fumed and fumed, and contemplated trying to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even though I didn’t know (and still don’t) if they would have jurisdiction over my employment situation. Eventually, I did something that I privately thought was quite clever — I wrote to the temp agency and asked for a raise, completely omitting the fact that I was aware that I was being paid less than a man with a similar background who was doing the same job that I was. I wrote to the temp agency about how I’d shown up at work and immediately started doing a job that was nothing like the one I’d been promised in the email I’d received — my job was much more complicated and entailed much more responsibility. I laid out the reasons why I thought I deserved a raise, simply on the merits of the work I was doing.

I was given a raise, to $14, even though I’d never mentioned a figure. It was almost as if someone had taken a look at what the other temps in my department were making and had realized the mistake. Except … this was not made retroactive. I was given the raise starting the next week. I quickly crunched the numbers, and calculated that I’d missed out on $960 of pay.

It is now months later, and I’m leaving, and I can’t let go of the $960 that I basically feel like I am owed. What should I do? Should I confront the temp agency about the truth? Part of what’s so frustrating about this is that I have no way to prove that they were deliberately paying me less because I am female. They could have been paying me less because they didn’t understand what I was going to be doing at work. When I started, they told me I’d be in Sales. I’m in Logistics. Was I sent to the wrong department on my first day at work? Or are these people just the scum of the earth? I have no way of knowing.

What should I do! Or, if it’s a more interesting answer, what should I have done? — K.

K., you did exactly what I would have done in this situation, which was talk with the people in charge and advocate for a raise based on my own merits. I’m glad you did that, and that you received a pay increase.

In fact, I was in this position (of being given a job and coming to the realization that I was being severely underpaid) and wrote about how I found out and what I did in a previous WWYD column I wrote back in September (see it here).

So to answer your question: “Should I confront the temp agency about the truth?”

If you look at my previous column, you’ll see that while advocated for a higher salary, I did not tell my boss that I knew that the person who had my position previously earned so much more than I did. There was little value in me doing so because the goal was to get a raise, not to accuse my boss of underpaying me and having him feel like I was being combative. Part of succeeding in the workplace, unfortunately, is figuring out how to navigate office politics.

Telling the temp agency that you know George was paid $2 an hour more than you would probably make you feel better by letting you get this off your chest, but what else would it do? It would unlikely get the $960 you feel owed because, as you say, you have no way to prove that the agency was paying you less because you’re a woman. Perhaps this temp agency is the scum of the earth and underpaying workers at every chance they get. Perhaps they’re incompetent and paid you the wrong amount for the wrong job. You can’t know for sure, and you shouldn’t let it drive you crazy.

I would leave this experience behind and focus on getting paid what I need to get paid at the next job.

 

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15 Comments / Post A Comment

This situation sucks. I’m sorry.

FYI for everybody– The National Labor Relations Act makes it illegal for employers to prohibit discussing salaries with coworkers: http://www.npr.org/2014/04/13/301989789/pay-secrecy-policies-at-work-often-illegal-and-misunderstood

annev17 (#4,822)

@TheclaAndTheSeals Yes, this!! That policy is NOT okay.

steponitvelma (#914)

I’m not sure why this was tagged “fighting for equal pay” when the answer supports sweeping her suspicions of discrimination under the rug? Yes, telling the temp agency that you suspect you were discriminated against is unlikely to get you the back pay you may be owed, but that doesn’t mean there are no options for you. Many discrimination laws provide for statutory damages on top of what you’re owed in back pay. If you think you were discriminated against based on your gender and you want to do something about it you should contact a lawyer. Many lawyers who work in this field work on a contingency basis and are willing to talk with you for free to determine if you have a case. Yes, you’re moving on, but you may help others who are also in this situation.

Mike Dang (#2)

@steponitvelma To answer your question: I think advocating for yourself and pushing for a raise if you feel like you’ve been discriminated against is fighting for equal pay, which the writer was successfully able to do. And to your other point, my assessment is less about sweeping her suspicions under the rug and more about navigating office politics. There have been tons of studies out there showing that it’s not that women don’t “lean in” enough, but that they’ve been penalized for doing so. The writer was strategic about going about getting a pay increase, which she thought was a clever move, and I thought that was the right approach.

However, you bring up some good advice about seeking legal help if you feel like you’ve been actively discriminated against—I agree completely with that!

steponitvelma (#914)

@Mike Dang Hey, thanks for responding! I think you’re correct that she took the right approach for her self and in the short term. I just felt like the bigger picture wasn’t addressed. And it put my guard up, because I think women are often told that it won’t “pay,” so to speak, for them to try to fight discrimination in the workplace, but discrimination won’t be fixed unless people are addressing it head on.

But again, thanks for your response, and I understand better why you answered the way you did.

jquick (#3,730)

Sure hope she’s going back to uni to study STEM!

Aconite (#6,401)

@jquick
That’s funny you should mention STEM, I was just about to tell you about an interesting statistic I read this morning. It said that 98.2% of people who studied STEM have experienced a situation in which their skills either a) saved a goat’s life or b) were able to resurrect an iPhone which had been dropped in a toilet (but interestingly, not one dropped in any other body of water).

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

@Aconite Don’t you ever stop.

RiffRandell (#4,774)

@Aconite I so enjoy your combat vs. the STEM troll.

Allison (#4,509)

@Aconite I’m starting to wonder if you and jquick are one in the same, and this is just elaborate performance art.

Aconite (#6,401)

@DebtOrAlive
While there are facts to share about STEM, I will never stop. This is my calling.

Mike Dang (#2)

@jquick You really like to trot out this song and dance a lot, but it would be great if you could, you know, offer some real advice. Would you recommend someone who has already graduated from college with a certain debt load to reapply and take out more loans to pay for their educations? Are there specific programs you’d recommend for someone who already has a degree? Are there ones that provide full funding? That would actually be useful advice!

Tripleoxer (#5,676)

@Mike Dang I agree! I have a History degree and work in finance and am trying to weigh out the costs of going back to school to change careers to something in the medical field. Would love to read something about what you just suggested.

@fo (#839)

@Mike Dang:

Throwing out “STEM” with nothing more is tiresome, for lotsa reasons, but if it is shorthand snark for “Hope she isn’t planning on spending $60,000 (plus $80k in lost income) on an MFA or something (if possible) *less* marketable”, then there is at least something to it. But, still, could be expressed in a more useful way, like:

“I hope she’s going back for a degree that’s actually necessary for what she wants to do and/or is fully funded so she won’t graduate 2 years older, with $60,000 in debt, and no genuinely better job opportunities.”

@fo (#839)

I think there are three real options:

1. Let it go (sing the song while doing so, if you must).
2. Ask for it, with no expectations. Even if the answer is “No way”, that’s no different result than now.
3. See if you can find a lawyer who does this stuff on contingency, and ask if s/he is interested. If “No”, see #2.

‘spose you could also file a complaint with EEOC directly–http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/charge.cfm , but I’m not into stepping into such a morass w/o counsel personally, so don’t put it on the real list. Again, even if “No”, see #2.

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