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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I know it's legal to share my pay information with coworkers, but my manager says it's strongly discouraged. What should I do?

I work at a retail job with mostly hourly positions and low wages. This is more or less my first “real job.” On the day I received my first paycheck, I had a question related to tax exemptions, so I asked a coworker, showing her my pay stub. Seeing this, my manager told me to put it away and that it was company policy not to share pay information. I knew this was illegal, but I didn’t make a fuss.

A few weeks ago, another coworker had a similar question, so I showed him my paycheck. Predictably, my manager stopped me. This time, I told her that preventing employees from sharing their pay information was against the law. She expressed disbelief but told me she’d talk with her higher-ups and get back to me.

The next morning, she called me and told me “you’re right, it’s illegal for us to do anything about you sharing your pay information, but we still highly discourage it because it can cause hard feelings and workplace drama.”

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My problem is that I doubt anyone else (besides me, my manager, and the other coworker involved) realizes that we have a right to share our pay information. My impression is that pay is pretty crappy all around, and no one feels like we have any power to negotiate our wages. I also wonder if there’s some pay discrimination going on.

I’m pretty willing to take some flack from my managers over this, but I have no idea how to go about it. Should I put up a poster? Print out some fact sheets? Really really awkwardly try to have a one-on-one conversation with each of my co-workers?

A: You can do any or all of those, depending on what you’re most comfortable with. However, be aware that the more overtly “organizing” ones (putting up posters and handing out factsheets) are more likely to have repercussions on your relationship with your manager and employer. It’s illegal for them to retaliate against you for exercising your legally protected right to discuss wages and working conditions with your coworkers, but retaliation can be subtle and difficult to prove. It can be the difference between a reference that’s “fine” and one that’s glowing. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go that route — if no one were willing to take those sorts of risks, we’d have far fewer rights — but you should be aware of that possibility before you take it on.

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If you want to go the more cautious route, I’d talk one-on-one with your coworkers and let them know their right to share pay information. But I definitely don’t want to discourage you from speaking out more broadly if you’re up for doing that.

It’s interesting how little known this fairly significant right is, so here’s some more information for people who didn’t even know this was a thing:

The National Labor Relations Act gives all employees the right to “engage in concerted activities,” which includes the right to discuss your wages and working conditions with each other. Employers aren’t allowed to prohibit you from discussing your salary, and any attempts to do so violate the NLRA. (People often think of the NLRA as being about unions, but these provisions apply whether you’re unionized or not.)

There are some exceptions to this though:

* The protection only applies to non-supervisory employees.

* It only applies to discussions with coworkers. You can still be prohibited from discussing your salary outside your organization. (This may make more sense when you consider that the point of the law is to protect your ability to organize with coworkers for better wages/working conditions. But employers are still permitted to consider their salary structure a trade secret and prohibit being released outside the company, to competitors, etc.)

* The law doesn’t require employers to allow wage discussions during times that you’re supposed to be working. However, singling out pay discussions for prohibition while allowing other non-work-related conversations wouldn’t fly. So if they prohibit you from socializing/chit-chatting/talking about TV at work, then they can include this too. But they can’t say, “You can talk about your kids and what you did this weekend but not what you’re paid.” If they allow non-work-related conversation on the job, they have to allow this.

* Your employer can limit your conversation about pay in front of customers.

* You wouldn’t be protected by the law if you obtained information about other employees’ pay through files known to be off-limits to you or because your job gives you access to other people’s salary records, or if you get others to break access restrictions and give you confidential information. So your coworker can tell you how much she makes, but getting the bookkeeper to tell you how much a coworker is making wouldn’t be protected by the law.

* The law doesn’t apply to government employees, agricultural laborers, domestic workers in a home, people employed by a parent or spouse, or independent contractors.

A lot of people are reading this with a deep sense of confusion right now — because all of their employers have told them that they couldn’t discuss pay with their coworkers. It’s an incredibly frequently violated law, and most people (including managers) think these policies are normal and have no idea that they violate the law. It’s a weird thing, and good for you for wanting to educate people about it.

Q: A company told me they’d call the authorities if I contact them again — should I show up in person to talk face-to-face?

I applied for the job of my dreams, no, the job of my life — the best job you can ever have in your wildest dreams! Long story short, I got rejected from the job . I was overly eager and contacted the lady who was the hiring manager. Anyway, I was looking at Craigslist and saw they have a few more openings. So I want to talk to the HR manger and address the situation and own up to my mistakes and make things better and right.

I need to do this for myself. I must just take charge and volunteer myself to do something uncomfortable and step outside my comfort zone. What do I do and say? As a side note, the HR manager told me I am no longer allowed to email the lady I was emailing, and if I do, they will take immediate action and may call the proper authorities.

I just do not know what to say. Is it best I just go in to his office and talk face to face or do I call or email if so what do I say and do?

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A: Noooooo, do not do not do not go there in-person. Do not show up, do not call, and do not email. You can’t apply there again at all — they told you that you’re not allowed to email their employee and threatened to take legal action if you do. That is not a company interested in hiring you for anything ever — that is a company that thinks that you’ve crossed a line to the point that they feel threatened. They aren’t going to hire you, and they’re going to be concerned and possibly even frightened if you contact them again. That’s not something companies say lightly; they said it because something happened that made them want zero contact with you in the future. You can’t even think of contacting them again, in any form; you have to move on.

The best thing that you can do is learn from the experience and realize that no matter how interested you are in a job, you can only contact them once, maybe twice, without a positive response in return, and that if you press further than that, you’ll torpedo your chances. Take that lesson and apply it other companies that interest you — but you’ve got to leave this one alone.

These questions are adapted from ones that originally appeared on Ask a Manager. Some have been edited for length.