What Do You Do When You Find out a Coworker is Making More Money than You Are?

One of your coworkers just drove into the parking deck in a brand-new car and another one is remodeling his kitchen—that must mean they’ve gotten a big raise, right?

coworker making more money

Maybe you caught a glimpse of a pay stub as you chatted with a cubicle mate, or perhaps a stray document forgotten at a copier caught your eye.

You’ve found out an unpleasant truth: a coworker is making more money than you are. What should you do with this information?

1. Do your research: make sure you’re sure

It’s easy to jump to conclusions—the office gadfly probably quickly glommed onto the outward signs of a windfall and started talking.

Problem is, gossip is often wrong. Before you do anything, find out for sure. Or, at least, as close as you can come to sure.

Approaching  coworkers about how much they make isn’t likely to work, though some are willing to share salary information, and in most companies, management won’t talk about it either.

If you work for the government, you’re in luck. All salaries are a matter of public record. Simply file a Freedom of Information Act request. Employees at nonprofits can access the organization’s Form 990 tax returns, which must include salary data about key employees. You can often find them online at GuideStar.

At larger companies, Human Resources might be willing to share salary ranges. You can also investigate online salary sites or scour your company’s job listings. Are you still in touch with managers who have left the company recently? Reach out and ask if there’s anything they can divulge.

2. Give yourself a brutal review

If you determine that, yes, it’s likely coworkers are making more than you are, ask yourself if there are legitimate reasons for it.

If they’re new hires, remember you’re never in a better position to negotiate than before you’re hired. Veteran employees can use some of the same pay negotiation tactics, but it’s a little harder.

Look for other reasons besides longevity. Do coworkers who make more money than you have advanced degrees or training you lack? Do they supervise more people? Have they spearheaded important and successful initiatives?

If your answer is “yes” to any of these, set out to fill the resume gap before approaching a supervisor about the pay gap.

3. Don’t make it personal

When you’re ready to go the boss, avoid a whiny toddler approach. Besides sounding childish, it makes your request sound emotional—not factual. Instead, present your manager with the specifics you’ve gathered and the research you’ve compiled.

On the other hand, don’t hesitate to be clear about what you want. “What can I do to get a significant raise next year?”—and it doesn’t hurt to define what you consider “significant.”

4. Timing is everything

Managers like problems they can solve before they become a crisis. That’s why the best time to bring up a pay issue is when the company is planning for the coming year. Set up a meeting well ahead of the budget cycle. The boss could be more receptive then.

Once the budget is set, you might get a raise, but chances are it will only be an advance on an increase you were going to get anyway.

5. Have realistic expectations

The truth is, a huge raise isn’t often in the cards unless you’re promoted. Think of other acceptable alternatives. Extra vacation, education allowances, more support staff, a bonus, a partial telecommute… Be prepared to pitch alternatives if the boss shoots you down on the raise.

It can be demoralizing to find out a coworker is making more money than you are. Once you’ve gotten over getting mad, formulate a systematic approach. Do your research, improve your resume if necessary, and sit down for a well-reasoned discussion.

If it doesn’t work, you’re that far ahead in your search for your new job.

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