This month, President Obama signed an Executive Order barring federal contractors from discriminating or retaliating against workers who discuss their salaries. The impetus behind this executive order was to specifically target pay discrimination and the “gender gap” in compensation. While this presidential order only affects government contractors, it is a good reminder to both workers and employers about whether employee compensation can and should be kept secret.
Some employers continue to have written policies prohibiting employees from discussing salaries with one other. From an employer’s perspective, such discussions could lead to workplace distractions, as well as potential conflicts amongst workers, or between labor and management. Despite possible good intentions, however, such policies and practices are unlawful.
Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives all employees the right to “engage in concerted activities”, which includes the right to discuss the terms and conditions of employment with other workers. This law applies to both union and non-union employees.
Furthermore, pay secrecy conceals workplace discrimination. While most employers make pay decisions based on legitimate criteria such as skills, job performance and seniority, discrimination in the workplace is a reality, and pay discrimination is one form of that unlawful conduct. If employees are not allowed to inquire or discuss the salaries of others, discrimination cannot be uncovered, and it will persist. In the end, this benefits neither the worker, nor the employer.
“Ignorance is an enemy, even to its owner. Knowledge is a friend, even to its hater. Ignorance hates knowledge because it is too pure. Knowledge fears ignorance because it is too sure.”
— Sri Chinmoy