Your coworker is paid more money than you. Now what?

It never feels good to find out that a coworker is paid more money than you. Often, the coworker can feel pretty miserable too. I remember one of my first jobs in high school back in the early 2000s was at a local childcare center. My best friend recruited me, and I was excited to have a break from waiting tables. At the restaurant, earning tips meant that my performance was directly tied to pay.

Two coworkers sit at a table.  One is male, one is female and both look dissatisfied.  The woman on the right is in front of a laptop, the man is holding his face.

On my first day, the director told me not to share my hourly rate with my coworkers. Of course, a few weeks later, my friend happened upon my paystub in my glovebox and saw I was making $0.50 more than her an hour. She refused to talk to me for a week. She was irate. In her mind, she’d been there longer than me and had more childcare experience than I did. There was no way it was fair that I was making $8 an hour while she made $7.50. I remember feeling terrible, and I was afraid she would tell my boss, which had me convinced I would be fired. Luckily for me, we eventually made up, and after a very long summer, I decided that childcare wasn’t my forte. 

It wasn’t until years later that I found out that my boss was the one out of line. Employers aren’t allowed to prevent coworkers from discussing wages under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Over generations, employees have been trained to believe it’s not polite or improper to share compensation with coworkers. While these conversations may be uncomfortable, there are many reasons they should be happening. 

We all should be talking about salary because:

  •  Transparency is important. Employers should be able to explain if and why there are variances in pay amongst employees. 
  • Wage gaps exist amongst minorities and women. These discussions can help bring to light discrepancies and hold employers accountable
  • A number does not define your worth. Your salary is simply the price you sell your labor and is always up for negotiation.

Now, let’s fast forward. You’ve learned that your coworker is paid more money than you, by a lot. Now what? You’re probably going to have an emotional reaction. Take a minute and feel your feelings, and then step back – some of the legitimate factors that can contribute to wage differences include:

  • Education/Certifications
  • Years of Experience/Age
  • Skills (bilingual)
  • Market rates at the time of hire
  • Shift differential/availability
  • Performance

However, nothing on this list means you should let it go. After considering these factors, if you still believe that its unfair that your coworker is paid more money than you are, it’s time to prep to meet with your boss. 

Build your business case

an open laptop with two hands.

Most people hate having these conversations, but there’s a chance this 15-minute conversation could be one of the most profitable meetings of your career. Do your best to keep your emotions out of the conversation and approach it as a business problem. Before your meeting, outline the work you do, the skills you bring, and the impact you’ve made on the organization.   What has changed since they hired you? Have you been able to take on bigger projects, a more significant workload, or absorbed the work of others

Then focus on your skills. How have your skills grown – any additional certifications or education unaccounted for when you started in the role? What about proficiency – have you been able to complete tasks faster or more accurate?

Finally, what is the impact? What have you done that has saved time, increased profit, or improved the organization? Again, if you can assign a dollar amount to your impact, it will make for a more straightforward argument. For example, “I saved $100,000 this year by streamlining X. I’d like to ask for a 10% increase”.

Do your research on what the market is paying for your work, and have a target amount in mind. 


Black and white image of Two men arm wrestling. There is crumpled money below their arms on a table.

Keep in mind that your boss will probably have to get approval for any salary increase from someone else. They will probably have to put forward a business case to make it happen, so you want them on your side. Be patient and professional as you approach the conversation, and know that getting an answer may take time and follow-up.

Once you start the meeting, get directly to the point. For example, your script may look something like this:

“I asked for this meeting today because I wanted to discuss my salary. As you know, when you hired me, I was offered $X. Now that I’ve been in the role for X time, I believe my contributions to the organization have increased. For example, I have taken on additional projects/work. Therefore, I would like to ask for a raise of $ dollars. I’ve researched, and this number is based on the market rate for my experience and skills.  I enjoy working at ACME company and being a part of the team.”

If your manager objects to the raise, it could be time to tell them you know your coworker is paid more money than you are. It might be something like, “Unfortunately, my current salary feels unfair when I know that others in the group are making $X for the same or similar work.” 

The waiting game

Waiting can be the hardest part. In the meantime, if you haven’t updated your resume lately, the information you gathered to prepare for your discussion will make great accomplishment-oriented bullets. Updating your resume also gives you a head start on your job search if needed. We recommend updating your resume at least annually regardless, so that your accomplishments stay fresh, and when you need to make updates, it’s much more manageable.

If it’s been a while and you haven’t heard anything from your boss, touch base. Check in after a week or two to see if they’ve made any progress – and if they haven’t, they should be able to explain what is blocking them.  

Next steps

the image is a table full of bundles of $100 bills.

Regardless of your leadership team’s decision about your compensation, you are now in a better position. You now have more data and can make better, more informed decisions. You’ve updated your resume and identified ways that you add value to the organization. You have practiced having difficult conversations and can reflect on what went well and how you’d like to handle them differently in the future.

From here, the power is in your hands. If you increased your salary, that’s fantastic! You have improved your lifetime earnings power. Unfortunately, a favorable outcome doesn’t always happen. If your coworker is still paid more money than you, it might be a good time to look for roles at other companies. Of course, switching jobs is the best way to increase your salary dramatically, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

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