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nine to five

The question

As a female engineer I recently started with a company that matched my previous salary of $90,000. A co-worker with similar qualifications is doing the same work and making $60,000. She asked me what I was making; I lied and said $70,000. I had been asked by my boss not to disclose my salary because it “might make some people upset.” I feel terrible for lying to her because I think women should be sticking up for women and helping ensure they are getting compensated fairly. But I know that if I told her my real salary it would have created waves when the company is already going through a lot of turmoil. It was not a situation where I could have comfortably deflected the question. What should I have done?

The first answer

Bruce Sandy

Principal, Pathfinder Coaching & Consulting, Vancouver

This has created an ethical dilemma for you. Do you keep your word to your boss about not disclosing your salary level or do you support a fellow female engineer who is not being appropriately compensated for her level and quality of work? You chose to speak about your salary and to lie about it to your work colleague. Thus, you betrayed your boss’s confidence and your work colleague’s trust in you.

What you should have done is be honest from the outset. You should have told your female work colleague that you were not at liberty to discuss your compensation level. You could have also added that her salary level sounds low and that she may want to do a salary review online through LinkedIn and other sites to compare her compensation level to that of engineers with her level of experience and education.

You can choose to do nothing more about this now but you risk alienating both your boss and work colleague if your colleague chooses to confront your boss with the erroneous information that you have shared. I suggest that you come clean and apologize to both of them. Say that you made an error in judgment and indicate to your boss and work colleague that you want to continue to build an open and trusting relationship with both of them and that you do not want to get caught in awkward three-way conversations about compensation inequities at the company.

The second answer

Colleen Clarke

Corporate trainer, workplace coach, career specialist, Toronto

Sharing salary information can result in tension with colleagues, resentment toward management and a toxic workplace. Your salary is the business of you and your manager, period. It is unprecedented to ask a co-worker their salary, even in this age of oversharing. That being said, millennials don’t seem to mind being asked or answering. Your concern for women sticking together is commendable, but this is not a relevant gender issue – you were asked not to share your salary, with anyone.

When asked a highly personal, private and uncomfortable question, be polite and cordial; it is likely an awkward moment for both of you. But just because you have been asked a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it. Simply say, “Why do you ask?” People usually ask this question to feel better about themselves or to compare, and often the comparison is not apples to apples. Your colleague may have other perks you don’t have, less expertise or is not a good negotiator.

Be polite and courteous but firm, which may defuse some of the awkwardness of the situation, and say, “I do not discuss salary or political preferences with colleagues. “

If you believe that everyone at your company is underpaid, you and your co-workers may want to share information in preparation for collective action; that, however, does not seem to be the case here.

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