Three overarching rules to help managers tackle questions about unequal pay.

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

This blog is part of a week-long series that looked at the identification of the problem on Monday, tried to understand it in context on Tuesday and at addressing it on Wednesday. Today we will look at what managers who have noticed this challenge in their teams can do.

As a manager, how should you handle questions regarding pay disparity? Traditionally employees were encouraged not to reveal their salaries, but several things, including legislation around the gender pay gap, have moved the goal posts. Managers are now increasingly asked to justify salary concerns even when they were not responsible for the original allocation.

When we talk about fairness, a key element is relative deprivation. In other words, it's not so much the amount of money that you give people that matters. It's how that amount compares to the amount you pay their peers. Imagine that everyone has a set of weighing scales in their head that they need to keep balanced. If there is a right balance between what people put into the business (skill, qualification etc.) and what the business pays out they are happy. The problem is we don't really know what we should be paid, generally the way we try and work that out is to compare it to other people. So if we find our wage is less than our peers, it adjusts the scales. Resulting in employees feeling like they are putting in more than they are taking out. This disparacy can have consequences on productivity, commitment and retention. As managers, it's our job to try and balance the scales.

As ever context is critical. Since we don't have in a blog, I'm going to provide three overarching rules that should help if you ever find yourself in this situation.

Question everything.

Before dismissing a concern, take some time to stop and objectively evaluate it. It can be really easy to feel personally attacked by a claim of discrimination or unfair treatment, but try and rise above that instinctual feeling. Remember the key here is to retain happy, productive employees. Research shows that we tend to unknowingly judge people differently based upon looks, characteristics and even personalities as opposed to their work, skills and input. If you want to ensure fairness throughout your team, read up on unconscious bias and take this implicit bias test to see if you fall into any of the bias traps.

Review the situation

Measure staff against KPIs, though be careful that these are not rigged in any one group's favour.

Being able to demonstrate that there is a reason someone is being paid less, will nearly always override the negative feelings they have felt. This is especially true if you then and set them on a path to being paid more. Of course, this is only if they are told of those reasons and agree they are reasonable.

If the individual is underpaid, put steps in place to take corrective action and explain to the individual what you have put in place and why. If you think you can afford to correct the error, ask if you could afford to lose the individual. That may well be the choice you have to make.

Consider your interaction

The way you choose to interact with your staff regarding this subject could, however, override everything. If you are dismissive of concerns, fail to show you care, or, are at all patronising, no amount of evidence will help you. Make sure you give time to employees and show them that you take their concerns seriously. Allow them to tell you why it bothers them and how they view the situation. It might seem strange, but research shows that interacting well with employees is more important than the amount you pay them. So basically, even if there is no pay discrepancy, you can still turn employees against you in the way you deliver that information.

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