Wage Discussion: A Socially Avoided But Essential Aspect of Workers’ Rights
Though employees tend to be reluctant to discuss their wages with co-workers, wage discussion is legally protected and an important way that workers can improve wage satisfaction and advocate for better pay where such compensation is deserved.
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Whether we’re dealing with our family, close friends, or passing acquaintances, there are always limits—some unspoken, others more dubious—that we expect others to follow. Perhaps one of the most difficult boundaries to define is the right to privacy, which manifests in virtually every aspect of the human experience, be it in social interactions, the law, or the workplace. And yet, the fact that the issue of privacy has come to permeate the workplace suggests that privacy extends beyond such things as personal preference or basic social etiquette. In fact, it is in the workplace that individuals tend to feel the most obligated to respect privacy, both of their colleagues and their employers. If nothing else, this entails employees’ general hesitancy to discuss wages with their co-workers, a reluctance that remains socially contentious but that is rooted in, and able to produce, positive efforts to improve working conditions and increase worker compensation.
A LinkedIn study in 2022 asked almost 5,000 employees about whom they discussed their salaries with, and only 16 percent of the respondents reported that they would share their pay information with co-workers. Despite this reluctance, wage-related discussion is legally permitted, even encouraged, by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), the 1935 labor act that remains the cornerstone of modern labor law and formed the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency in charge of enforcing the Act. It is the NLRA that establishes workers’ fundamental rights—“full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing”—as the necessary means by which the “free flow of commerce” can continue. In short, for a good economy to be maintained, workers must be given collective bargaining rights. These rights are further explained in Section 7 of the NLRA: Employees have the right to self-organize, choose representatives to collectively bargain on their behalf, and engage in concerted activity for “mutual aid or protection.”
The goal of NLRA—and Section 7—protected rights is to pave a flexible path for better working conditions in the future, which is why wage discussion falls into the category of “concerted” activity carried out for “mutual aid.” Even more importantly, employers cannot restrict such actions on account of Section 8, which prohibits employers from “interfer[ing] with, restrain[ing], or coerc[ing]” employees in their exercise of Section 7—permitted rights, by extension including wage-related discussion. (It is important to note that the term “employee” refers to private sector employees, which excludes government employees, independent contractors, and those employed by family members in a domestic setting.) This clause makes sense, considering how the NLRA is built on the premise that a power imbalance inherently exists between employers and employees. Since the scales tend to be tilted in favor of employers, the NLRA is meant to prioritize the rights of employees to balance these scales as much as possible.
It is this idea of striking a balance that often renders employers’ justifications for policies restricting NLRA-guaranteed rights indefensible. Sometimes, employers cite concerns regarding confidentiality or business justifications and propriety. Or, they argue that such conversations could create an uncomfortable working environment, with the possibility of worsening relationships among employees. Such an idea initially seems sensible—if there are significant enough disparities between your salary and that of your co-worker, then one or both of you may feel insecure about your job performance, especially if your job positions are not too dissimilar. Perhaps this kind of knowledge would just make you feel burdened, especially if you feel salary-related information is private business.
Yet sharing details about your salary could also lead you and your co-workers to realize that perhaps some of you aren’t being adequately paid. The guiding principle at a workplace should not be conflict evasion but conflict resolution, and when an employer includes clauses forbidding wage discussion in a contract, this prevents healthy conversations that allow workers to be fairly compensated and keeps workers from taking steps to attain such compensation. Similarly, restricting wage discussion on the grounds that it’s bad for business practically invalidates the entirety of Section 7; employee unionization and self-organization are also, arguably, bad for business, as oftentimes concerted activity can evolve into something like employee strikes, in the event that employees’ or unions’ efforts are met with undesirable results. Engagement in this kind of concerted activity is always a source of potential wariness for employers, but that does not make it any less necessary for employees. If collective bargaining is the core of the NLRA, then wage discussions are, as a 2011 case decision mentions, the “core” of collective bargaining and other concerted activity, simply because they open up avenues for employees to self-organize and, consequently, are “the grist on which concerted activity feeds.” Because paid work is a fundamental right, employer interference in wage discussions inherently violates the NLRA, simply by virtue of the law’s focus on ensuring that workers get what they are due and what they need to survive.
This doesn’t mean that employers are completely powerless in forbidding wage-related discussions among employees. In healthcare institutions and environments like hospitals and medical facilities, for instance, employers can lawfully restrict workers from talking about workplace issues and grievances, granted that such discussion can be proven to potentially disrupt patient care and wellbeing, as established by a 1995 case regarding wage discussion at an ophthalmology center. Even here, though, the right balance must be found; if an employer tries to completely prevent employees from discussing workplace issues without adequately showing that talking about such issues in a hospital could jeopardize patient health to a significant extent, then they are making a pitiably insufficient attempt to accommodate for employees’ rights. As an example, simply saying that employees cannot talk about wage issues within “earshot” of patients is problematic because the restriction is so vague and far-reaching (without any locational or temporal specificity) that employees will constantly worry about being overheard and thus be discouraged from discussing wages altogether. The bottom line is that no matter what kind of institution or profession an employee works in, substantial accommodations must be made to ensure that their right to discuss workplace issues—however uncomfortable those issues may be—is protected.
Despite knowing all this, though, it may just seem easier to play it safe. Sure, it’s okay to talk about your wages—it is, in most cases, legally defensible—but so what? Isn’t it better to keep to yourself and refrain from doing something that might get you fired?
It all comes back to balance, particularly to finding the right kind of balance between what employers require of their employees and what employees feel they deserve in return, both in terms of pay and their rights as workers. The focus then shifts to making sure not that “it’s okay” to talk about wages but that workers can discuss such things when they want to and when they feel it’s important, without worrying about receiving a termination notice or broaching a socially sensitive topic. Because wage discussion is such a touchy subject, it may be difficult to make it the norm suddenly, but the fact that it is so touchy makes it all the more important for people to understand that uncomfortable discussion isn’t off-limits—sometimes its uncomfortable nature makes it all the more necessary to address. It may be easier to start small: telling co-workers how you feel about your work schedule or how satisfied you are with your job in general. Eventually, more frequent discussion of work-related matters will naturally lead to less uneasiness about discussing wages. And let’s not forget the legal protection afforded workers in this matter: if discussing your wages causes your employer to retaliate in the form of more difficult work assignments, suspension, or termination, you can file a legal complaint with one of the NLRB’s regional offices.
Luckily and perhaps unsurprisingly, willingness to talk about wages is gaining more traction, especially among younger workers. For many teenagers and young adults new to the job market, wage discussion is much more significant than it is for older folks, and as a result, more employers are also recognizing the importance of pay transparency as they seek to recruit and retain new employees. Undoubtedly, this is a trend that will only popularize with time, and for the better; with greater awareness of the positive implications of wage discussion, employees will be much better equipped to deal with pay-related issues in the workplace.
*Eman Sadiq is a participant of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Student Ambassador Program. The views expressed in this document are exclusively those of Eman Sadiq and do not represent the views of the NLRB.