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Can You Tell Employees Not to Discuss Their Pay?

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Discussing salaries can be a controversial topic in the workplace (but it doesn’t have to be!) These conversations are empowering for some employees. The problem is that when pay is uneven, most employees are unaware of the reasons and can feel confused and possibly even undervalued. This can lead employers to question whether it’s okay for these conversations to be happening.

We totally get it. If you’re not a professional HR superstar like our legit team members at EmPower HR, it can be difficult what your rights are when it comes to employees discussing wages. We’ve listed our most-asked questions about what employers can do when employees are discussing pay:

  • Can you tell employees not to discuss pay with each other?
  • Is it illegal for employees to discuss wages
  • Is it legal to stop employees from discussing their salary?

Can You Tell Employees Not To Discuss Pay?

No, according to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA.) All employees (not just those in unions) have the right to organize and engage in group activity for mutual aid or protection. This means that employees are allowed to organize and are protected when discussing their salaries. We’ll go into detail about the legality of an employer’s rights when it comes to employees discussing salary. But the short answer is that employers can’t tell employees not to talk about their salaries. 

Is It Illegal For Your Employees To Discuss Wages?

No, employees are legally protected. Activities for mutual aid and protection could include discussions about wages, benefits, treatment from managers, safety issues, and just about anything else that two or more employees might have a stake in. As a result, the protections provided by the NLRA are very broad. Here are a few examples of activities protected by the NLRA:

  • Employees discussing their pay, whether via email, break room chat, or social media
  • Employees organizing to resolve a general workplace concern, like uneven salary
  • Employees circulating a petition asking for better hours
  • Employees refusing to work in unsafe conditions
  • Employees joining with coworkers to talk directly to the employer, to a government agency, or to the media about problems in the workplace

Keep in mind that the NLRA doesn’t protect supervisory employees in this way. This distinction is important because it means that management is not protected in the same way as normal employees. Management may not have the same legal protections as regular employees when discussing salary.

A “supervisory employee” means any management employee with power to hire, fire, discipline or reward someone.

Employers should always be careful about who they classify as “supervisory.” Only those who have real authority will be exempt from the NLRA’s protections—an assistant manager or shift manager, for example, would in many cases not qualify as supervisory. These employees (although they’re deemed “managers”) don’t have the power to hire or fire anyone and would still be protected by the NLRA.

Is It Legal To Stop Employees From Discussing Their Salary?

No, you cannot stop employees from discussing wages. A number of states have enacted pay equity or pay transparency laws that protect all employees’ ability to discuss their wages—even those in the C-suite. Depending on what state you’re in, under these laws, you wouldn’t be able to enforce wage confidentiality policies, even for supervisors.

You won’t be able to get around the law with non-disclosure agreements either. In general, non-disclosure agreements are lawful, but they cannot include any provisions that prohibit the discussion of pay. Salary discussions are protected and will trump any non-disclosure agreement (even if the other portions of the NDA are perfectly lawful).

What Employers Can Do

Some of the best ways for employers to discourage employees from discussing their wages are:

    • Make sure employees are being paid fairly. The Equal Pay Act was put in place to ensure that people who work under similar conditions and bring in the same skills and efforts, should be paid the same salary. For small business owners, paying competitive wages is a crucial part of HR compliance. 
    • Create a workplace where employees are comfortable approaching HR.  Human Resources are the ones with the power to make salary changes, so having a welcoming HR team eager to review the problem is the best way to stop employees from discussing pay.
    • Help employees understand their job potential. Employees that have a clear work trajectory are more motivated at work. Making employees aware of additional skills, training, or certifications they need can help them see why there may be a salary disparity, and what they can do to work up to an increase in pay.
    • Conduct an anonymous survey. One of the best ways to gauge employee engagement is to conduct an internal survey. Get real feedback on your employees’ motivation and a pulse on your company’s overall culture. 

HR Can Help

If your employees are discussing their salaries, you should always handle the situation with care. What employees really want is to feel valued and know that they’re getting paid fairly. That’s where HR can help.

Human Resources is instrumental in handling employee expectations. When pay is unequal, it’s HR’s job to explain why the gap exists. A disgruntled employee may not see the extra hours their coworker is putting in. To help maintain trust, HR should commit to two-way communication and respond to employee questions and concerns about salary. 

How employees feel about their salary directly affects their future with the company and has a significant impact on productivity and turnover. Let HR guide the conversation. With straightforward company policies, employees can better understand HR teams and their decisions.