What to Say When You’re Paid Less Than a Co-Worker For the Same Work

This is going to be awkward. But now is the time to take action.

Erin Lowry
Published in
5 min readAug 14, 2019
Photo: kate_sept2004/Getty Images

WWhether you accidentally saw your co-worker’s paycheck or actually talked about salary with them, it’s incredibly uncomfortable to find out that you’ve been making less money for the exact same job as one of your colleagues.

Okay, let’s be honest: “Uncomfortable” is an understatement. It’s enraging to learn you’re being paid less — especially when you have reason to think it’s because of your gender, race, class, age, or any factors other than your ability and experience.

Of course, there are always reasons to explain this away. “People can end up with different salaries for the same work because one negotiated better when being hired, or has asked for larger raises than the other person has, or the employer puts more value on one person’s education, or type or amount of experience,” says Alison Green, creator of the Ask a Manager work advice site.

All these classic excuses for wage disparity can sound legitimate, but if they result in men and women being paid differently for the same work, that’s still illegal under the Equal Pay Act. “Exceptions to this are if the employer can prove they’re paying someone more due to seniority or a merit system,” says Green. “But if it’s just because John negotiated better than Jane? No.”

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also enforces protections against discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, age, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation. And workplace discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is illegal under federal law.

The legally defensible reasons your co-worker may out-earn you include: experience, education, and time in position. And of course the first two factors mean it’s possible that the new guy makes more than the company veteran.

“Exceptions to this are if the employer can prove they’re paying someone more due to seniority or a merit system. But if it’s just because John negotiated better…



Erin Lowry
Writer for

Writer, speaker, and author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together and Broke Millennial Takes On Investing.