Steps to consider when a colleague gets paid more than you

Ascertain if there are genuine reasons a work colleague is receiving more pay before taking action — and then hone your arguments to discuss with your employer.

Few things are more infuriating than discovering the person who sits next to you and does the same job is being paid more than you are. But there is often more to this situation than meets the eye, and you need to tread carefully.

Here are eight steps you can consider:

First things first

Start by asking yourself if the person who is being paid more really is in exactly the same role as you. Are they, for example, more experienced than you? And is their job identical to yours, or do they have other responsibilities that you don’t? Are there extra elements of their pay for which you may not be eligible? All can be legitimate grounds to pay you less.

Next, are you a different gender or race, or do you differ in another protected characteristic? If this is the case, then your employer may be violating equality legislation. If it is, this makes your case much easier to fight.

However, employees’ rights vary enormously by jurisdiction, and some of the advice here is more relevant in jurisdictions where employees’ rights tend to be stronger (such as European countries).

Do your homework

Depending on the country you’re in and the size of your company, your employer may publish its gender pay gap. It is also likely to have a policy on pay. You should get hold of this information. You should also look at the legislation around equal pay in your country and, finally, look at the pay rates for jobs at your level in your industry. You can ask colleagues what they are paid, but you need to be careful here, both in terms of trust and what you do with the information; this is doubly true of any particular colleague who is being paid more. Finally, think about your more recent appraisals and how good they were. All of these can help to make your case.

Next, approach your boss

Approaching your boss requires a bit of tact on your part. The first thing to ascertain is whether your co-worker really is being paid more. So go in gently. Say, “I’ve heard my co-workers are being paid 15% more than I am for the same role. I wanted to know if this was true.” It’s important here not to use names or mention exact figures — as this helps you avoid getting into an inquisition about where the information came from.

If it is true, be reasonable but assertive

Pay inequality might feel like an injustice — and you may feel angry. But you need to stay calm and measured, not least because anger will not get you what you want. Do not accuse or threaten or make demands. Instead, you might say, “I’d like to understand why my salary is lower.” Bear in mind that it might be an error or it might be a situation your boss has inherited, so be reasonable.

Here, if there is an applicable legally protected difference between you and the other person, you should mention this, too. For example, say that you are concerned that this may violate equal rights legislation, which could be a problem for the business.

Move towards solutions

Ask what needs to be done to equalise your pay. Again, take a collaborative approach. Rather than demanding “What are you going to do about this?”, you might say, “What can we do to sort this out?” or “How can we best address this?” or “Is there anything I can do?” Here, it helps if you think about what you want beforehand, the points you are willing to concede, and what your red lines are.

Don’t let them fob you off

The easiest thing for a boss to do in this situation is to say they’ll look at it at your next pay review — or at the end of a period that may be years in the future. But this is not really an acceptable response if your case is strong. Explain that you appreciate the mechanics of this may take time, but you need to get a road map in place. If they can’t take action now, make a date to review the situation. Then ask about what can be done in the interim. Think about solutions that could deal with the issue creatively in the short to medium term. Would you, for instance, be willing to accept a one-off bonus or two weeks’ extra holiday? Would a better job title improve things? The message you are giving your boss here is that you expect progress and this cannot be endlessly put off.

What if my boss refuses to engage?

If your boss refuses to engage, talk to your HR department. Colleagues there will be able to advise you.

And if this doesn’t work?

If all else fails, you may be able to seek recourse via the courts or another legal mechanism, such as an employment tribunal. The way you do this (particularly in cases involving a gender- or race-based claim) will depend on the jurisdiction you are in. Moreover, in some jurisdictions, you can even make a claim for a period after you have left the company. However, if matters have escalated to this point, you may also wish to consider leaving the company. Although this may seem like giving in, it’s an entirely pragmatic response. A long legal battle could be exhausting and dispiriting, and it could damage your own reputation, whereas a move could deliver better pay, a better company, and even a promotion — all while still sending a very clear message to your employer.

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Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Oliver Rowe at