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Wage whispers: Can we stop salary talk?

By Paul Edwards

When one employee finds out another employee makes more money, it can send ripples throughout your entire workplace. In light of the morale damage this kind of talk can cause, you may be tempted to tell employees not to discuss salaries at all. The problem is employees have a legal right to discuss their salaries with other employees because of existing NLRA protections.

What is the NLRA?

The NLRA or National Labor Relations Act, is a large, developing area of federal law that’s rapidly changing the way you can regulate your employees’ speech, both on and off the job. Section 7 of the NLRA grants union and non-union employees alike the right to engage in certain activities so they may collectively bargain. These protections apply to all speech related to employment conditions like scheduling, safety and, yes, wages as well.

The past four years under the Trump administration saw attempts to make the NLRA more friendly for employers and less friendly for unions. However, with the recent appointment of Marty Walsh, the new secretary of labor with strong union ties, it’s probably safe to assume that the incoming Biden administration will be a labor-friendly one.

Whether your office is big or small, unionized or not, an NLRA infraction is easy to spot, even easier to prove and the number of small practices prosecuted over these violations keeps growing. With that in mind, it might be a good time to take a look at what the NLRA has to say about employees discussing wages.

What does the NLRA say about salary talk?

The NLRA protects two or more of your employees talking among themselves about any aspect that could improve working conditions including wages and salaries. Because this legislation is federal, it applies to every single workplace regardless of size in every single state including those with at-will employment laws. Even mentioning but never enforcing a ban on salary talk in your handbook is a violation of Section 7. Wherever your employees communicate among themselves, Section 7 protects salary talk. This applies to happy hours, work trips, email, social media as well as your own office no matter how few employees you have.

What can I do?

While you can’t stop employees from discussing their salaries with other employees, you can reduce workplace resentment by helping your employees understand the rungs on the ladder to better compensation. The three practices below can help you keep your business compliant and your employees on the path to success:

1 Review your paperwork

If you have an employee handbook that was not created by CEDR, have an attorney or CEDR review it to make sure it doesn’t prohibit employees from talking about their wages. If you have a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement, make sure it doesn’t go too far in limiting what your employees can and can’t talk about.

2 Require concern reporting

Develop a policy that requires employees to immediately address their workplace concerns with you or another member of management to eliminate feelings that an employee is not valued. All CEDR handbooks include this policy.

3 Set clear expectations

Consistently conduct performance reviews. Communicate your expectations and let your employees share theirs. This eliminates the appearance that your pay model is arbitrary. Give your employees job descriptions that clearly outline their duties. This will keep them on track to exceed your expectations with the goal of better compensation.

Talking about salary discrepancies with your employees is uncomfortable. It’s so uncomfortable, many managers are tempted to avoid it altogether, telling employees to keep their salaries to themselves. However, doing so not only runs the risk of putting your business out of compliance, it can create resentment and hostility among your workforce. Rather than focusing on controlling what employees say, shift your focus to helping your workers visualize a clear and attainable path to success through open lines of communication and clear expectations.











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