Dear Businesslady: My Coworker Told Me What She Makes And Now I'm Unhappy

Dear Businesslady: My Coworker Told Me What She Makes And Now I'm Unhappy
Edited from original by Andrew Otto via Flickr

by Courtney C.W. Guerra.

Dear Businesslady,

My former manager left a few months ago and I was part of the interview panel to hire her replacement. When I saw the resumes of those being interviewed for her role, I realized I had more experience than 3 out of the 4 candidates. At first I was upset about not being asked to interview but instead of getting angry, I decided to ask our group director to consider me for the role.

From our conversations, I gathered that her favorite candidate was the least experienced of the bunch. His lack of experience was an opinion shared by the rest of the interview panel. She got a bit defensive about this—they have a relationship outside of work. It was obvious that she really wanted to hire him though, saying that he was a good cultural fit and could be taught anything he needed for the job. I told her that I would feel uncomfortable reporting to him since he has so much less experience. After about a week, she came up with the solution that I’d be promoted and he’d be hired and report to me. I was kept out of the process after that and never saw his offer letter. He does report to me now and I manage him. It's been about 3 months.

With my promotion, I was given a small raise. My responsibilities increased significantly.

About 2 months passed and we had company-wide combo cost of living/merit increases. I was told that I wasn’t eligible for an increase because of my recent promotion. Later on, a colleague and friend who has the same job title as my direct report asked about my increase and I told her I didn’t receive one. She is very much in favor of pay transparency so she told me what she received and what her new salary is—it’s only $1,500 less than what I make. Another colleague who is at the same title level as my director told me that they were not given any guidelines about who could receive increases and he gave all of his new hires increases.

In general, I don’t like talking about salaries because there’s often little you can do about it and finding out what your colleagues make is bound to make you unhappy and that's what happened. I reached out to a former colleague who had a similar title to my current one and it turns out she was also making a couple of thousand more than my current salary before the cost-of-living increase .

I don't know what my direct report makes because I was kept out of the conversation but I worry that my salary and his are similar. That's not to say that I don’t want him to make a wage that is fair, just that I don’t feel like I'm being fairly compensated for my work given my responsibilities and title. I don't know what to do. I'm wondering how to approach my boss, whether I should, or if I should just suck it up.

Any advice would really help!


Ignorance Is Bliss

Dear Bliss,

This is so rough! I really feel for you, and categorically do not think this is a suck-it-up-and-deal situation. 

I agree that it seems pretty obvious that your group director was determined to hire the guy (of course it’s a guy) you now manage. Not only that, she turned your concerns about his experience into a convenient little workaround in which you have all the extra stress of a higher-level job without the corresponding compensation. 

Even if you bracket the crucial salary aspect, it seems like things aren’t great in your company’s culture. For starters, a boss should usually have eyes on their direct reports’ offer letters and should know how much money they’re making; it’s highly unusual (and suspect!) that those details were kept hidden from you. But that arrangement makes sense if your director saw your promotion less as a sincere recognition of your talents and expertise and more as a loophole that allowed her to get what she wanted.

I don’t blame you for not pushing back on this arrangement because, well, you’re new to management! And when your job offers you a promotion—even a nominal one that’s circumstantially shady—it makes sense to take it. But now that you’ve been enlightened out of your ignorance (which it’s hard to see as particularly “blissful” from here, maybe neutral at best), it’s time to fix this problem.

In case I haven’t been clear so far: you are correct that this is bullshit and especially correct that $1,500 is far too small a salary discrepancy to exist between roles with significantly different levels of responsibility. I don’t want to pretend that employee pay is universally fair—or that everyone with a massively high salary deserves it—but the general idea is that you earn more in proportion with the amount of nonsense your job makes you deal with. In your case, it could be reasonable for you to be making $1,500 more than a peer with just a little less seniority than you (like, let’s say you started at $75k/year and got a 2% increase). And you’ve made it clear that this isn’t just a change in title but a dramatic shift in your workload.

So, kudos to your colleague who believes in salary transparency. Does she believe in it enough to let you cite the info she provided in discussions with your manager? (While you’re not obligated to get her permission first, it’s a kindness and a way of avoiding potential hard feelings or awkwardness depending on how this plays out.) If she’s not comfortable being named as your source, the intel from your ex-colleague is fair game regardless—you don’t have to say who it is, and even if her identity is easily discernible, “I talked with a friend about how much money I made at my old job” is not a reasonable thing for a former employer to take issue with. And while I appreciate that you don’t like discussing salary info, you’re right in the middle of an object lesson in how useful and empowering it can be.

Here’s what you know: You’re underpaid relative to your org’s own standards. Your boss hired her buddy and then gave you a deficient promotion to shut you up. On top of that, she misled you about your eligibility for a raise in the last cycle.

Your boss sucks, to put it bluntly, which is a problem for a lot of reasons, starting with “she’s responsible for overseeing the work you do in exchange for financial stability and has influence in the narrative arc of your career.” More specifically, the fact that she sucks is an impediment to rectifying your salary situation. Not only do you need to get her on your side, now, you have to achieve that within the context of a scenario she designed.

Here I pause to take a deep, cleansing breath while remembering the adage against ascribing malice to behavior that could be instead attributed to mere incompetence. I encourage you to do the same.

If your boss’s prodigious shittiness has a silver lining, it’s this: Discussions in which you argue that you’re undervalued put your audience in an uncomfortable position. They are implicitly a critique of your manager, if only as a representative of a larger system who didn’t go out of their way to advocate for you. And that discomfort is an asset, rhetorically speaking. Often, the most powerful thing you can do in such conversations is to make a damning point (e.g., “I wonder what [clients who constantly praise my strong performance] would say if they knew how little I was making”) and then shutting up while you let it hang in the air.

As someone who compulsively jumps to fill awkward silences—both because I have an inherently helper-y nature and because I am chatty—this aspect of difficult conversations is a challenge for me, particularly if I have genuine respect and/or affection for the person I’m talking with. (*Readers of the loquacious advice columns I write for free: “Wow, I could never have guessed this.”) But if you’re talking to a selfish shithead, you can worry less about protecting their feelings. I say you can because I know this stuff is always harder in practice than theory, and from the tone of the letter I don’t get the sense that you’re a burn-it-all-down type of person. Consider this a chance to practice the useful negotiation tactic of making the other person squirm.

The conversation itself isn’t too dissimilar from the one you’d have while requesting a promotion. You want to be as over-prepared as possible, with all your data and talking points organized for easy reference as you’re talking. But keep the power of silence in mind and mete them out slowly as the discussion unfolds. And—despite all evidence to the contrary—try to approach your boss in a collaborative mode: you’re not accusing her of anything; you’re asking for her help in rectifying this unfortunate scenario in which your compensation is misaligned with your duties. Did she create the scenario? Yes. Did she know full well what she was doing? Almost certainly. But a contentious relationship with your manager is something to be avoided, especially when you know they’re willing to circumvent norms in order to get their way, so let’s pretend she’s incompetent.

So you make your case, citing the overwhelming evidence in your favor: your pay versus that of colleagues in comparable roles. Try not to get agitated or combative, but don’t back down either. If she says it’s impossible to give you a raise, ask what would make it possible. If it’s not her decision, ask whose decision it is and whether you can take this up with them directly. Pretend “no” is not an option, and to the best of your ability, calmly parry any of her protestations until there’s a plan in place to fix this.

That’s my advice for the question you asked. There’s another one you didn’t: “Should I look for another job?” The answer to that is YES. Because you’ve got a dishonest manager who’s not looking out for you, nestled within an organization that’s either too dysfunctional or too malicious to be keeping her in check. In the words of Public Enemy, it all adds up to a funky situation

Maybe you’ll start applying for jobs and get a promising offer before you get a chance to broach the pay question with your boss—great, so much the better. But searches famously take time, and (while I don’t approve of this) your compensation in a new role is often informed by your salary history. Not to mention, bringing this up will allow you to get more comfortable advocating for yourself—it’s not always so self-evident that you deserve the thing you’re asking for.

If that doesn’t convince you, consider this: every day you don’t get your pay adjusted is literally costing you money. While I too dread uncomfortable and/or confrontational conversations—if you don’t, congrats but also I’m a little afraid of you—if someone was like, “Hey, if you try to persuade this jerk to do the right thing I’ll give you several thousand dollars,” I would be putting on my best power outfit and striding into their office armed with my notepad of talking points. 

So there’s my prescription: do your best to persuade your boss to correct this, and prepare an exit strategy in the background. If you struggle on one of those fronts, there’s hope that the other one will be more successful; either way, you’ll be in better circumstances. The worst thing that can happen within the confines of your current job is that she’ll say no, which—while not ideal—only prolongs the reality you’re in now. (And in response to a “no,” you can always try to keep options open for the future: Can we revisit this in 6 months? Or, if she’s citing some other stakeholder as the decision-maker, can you get permission to approach that person directly? Et cetera.) 

If you’re worried about damaging your relationship with your manager by even bringing this up, well, try not to. First, you’re asking for something very normal, even beyond the fact that it’s arguably something that you’re already owed: people ask for raises and promotions all the time, and unless they’re wildly unqualified (not true in this case) it demonstrates ambition, long-term planning, and a desire to stay with the same organization. Second, you’d be doing her a service by giving her a chance to rectify the weird position she’s put you in. In the unlikely event that you feel like there are bad vibes between you in the aftermath, you can probably smooth that over by going out of your way to say, “Thank you for hearing me out the other day about the raise and promotion stuff. I really appreciate it.” She doesn’t deserve your generosity and gratitude but you absolutely earned the right to be the bigger person here.

The best thing about this plan I’ve proposed is that the boss convo and the job search are complementary projects—both involve documenting your workload, your skills, your capabilities, and the value you bring to an organization. In the course of brushing up your resume you’ll find plenty of ammunition for the discussion with your manager, and in the course of prepping for that conversation you’ll identify bullet points you can add to your resume. Both can inform your cover letter, and whenever you’re at the interview phase for a potential new job, you can breezily explain why you’re leaving with, “the organization has issues with salary parity.” No need to explain the details—a job worth taking will be more than happy to pay you what you’re worth. That said, don’t hesitate to use your newfound talking-about-money experience to negotiate an even better compensation package.

My hope for you is that you get to address this with your boss soon, and that either she sees reason or you prevail upon a higher-up to get your pay adjusted toward an objective standard of fairness. And I hope that shortly thereafter, you find an amazing new job that is better in all ways than the one you’re in now. If nothing else, you’re all but guaranteed to have a better manager.

Courtney C.W. Guerra chose the pseudonym “Businesslady” even though she’s spent over a decade as a writer and editor in humanities academia. She’s the author of the career guide Is This Working? (Simon & Schuster 2017) as well as work-advice columns for some of the internet’s finest defunct websites. You can find her writing on her website and send her a tip if you’re so inclined—but if you bought or recommended her book, that would make her happy too.

Need help with a career conundrum or workplace woe? Send a letter to

Tip the columnist

via PayPal