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I was recently promoted into a management position that gives me access to confidential salary information about my peers. I am really angry to learn about some significant salary inequities in my department! What can I do to reduce my frustration and fix this problem?

Colleen in California

Dear Colleen: This may not make you feel any better, but you are experiencing one of the most common frustrations faced by new managers. Most employees think they'd love to know everyone's salary until they actually gain legitimate access to it. Then they realize how very frustrating the information can be.

I offer three suggestions to help you deal with your frustration:

  1. Try not to let your anger overshadow your enthusiasm about your new position. A person's first promotion into management is a major accomplishment and you should be very proud of yourself. Take time to appreciate the vote of confidence from your organization has in you. Use their vote of confidence to your advantage as you calmly and rationally lay out a strategy for more equitably rewarding experience and achievement in your department.
  2. Remember that your company values you as a leader – that is why they promoted you into management. As a leader, they expect you to act like a leader. That means no matter how angry you are, you don't make inappropriate public displays of your emotions, and don't disclose confidential salary information to people who should not have access to it. These behaviors might make you feel better short term, but you’ll regret them later.
  3. Knowing that salary inequity is alive and well in corporate America may not eliminate your frustration, but it may stop you from jumping ship in search of more equitable pastures that rarely exist.

I offer three suggestions to help you correct the problem:

  1. Take time to devise an action plan before sharing your anger with your boss. It’s fine to let your boss know you're angry, but he’ll respect you more if you present him with your proposed solution at the same time you’re presenting him the list of problems.
  2. If you are responsible for allocating bonuses or annual increases to the employees in your department, find out what parameters you have for making large increases to your most valuable (and underpaid) employees while capping or freezing the increases of the people that you feel are overpaid.. Over time, this strategy will help diminish the salary inequities.
  3. Keep in mind that your job as a leader is to be forward thinking. Don't dwell on the past. You were not given a clean slate to work with when you started as a manger, but you can level the playing field for the future and make sure things are done with fairness, equity, and integrity on your watch.

I offer three important pieces of information that help explain (not justify) the most common salary discrepancies.

  1. Once an employee establishes a starting salary within a company, they are forever tethered to that base salary. It's almost impossible to gain large incremental adjustment no matter how much your responsibilities change over time. Why? Because companies award salary increases as a percentage of base salary. Once you start out with a lower base salary, you're forever tied to that base salary. Many employees choose to change jobs because it's sometimes the best and only way to achieve a salary.
  2. Market forces are a major factor in determining a new hire’s base salary. Often someone with less experience is hired in at a higher salary than the person who has been working at the company for many years simply because of market demands at the time of the hiring.
  3. There are still large salary inequities between men and women doing the same job. Some of this stems from a much larger societal issue about inequitable pay for women, but some of it stems from individual differences. I can tell you from experience that men often make more money than women simply because they ask for it. Women wrongly believe their hard work will be noticed and rewarded. Men are much more willing to draw attention to their own accomplishments and ask for compensation. As a result, they get greater salary increases than their equally talented, non-demanding female colleagues. I strongly encourage women to be a strong advocate for themselves when it comes to equal pay for equal work.

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