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Ask the Evil HR Lady: How do I prevent salary harassment?

This is part of a series in which The Evil HR Lady addresses a real-life HR question or challenging situation. Here, an HR professional asks for advice on handling an employee who keeps asking others to divulge salary information.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

Ask the Evil HR Lady

Q: I have an employee, Heidi, who continually asks others for their salary info. Some people don’t want to discuss it and tell her that, but she won’t stop asking! I want to give her a supervisory directive to quit bugging people, but I also know she has the right to discuss this. What is the correct terminology I should use here?

You’re right that Heidi absolutely has the right to tell all her coworkers her salary. And it’s good that you know this because a shocking number of companies make rules forbidding employees from sharing their salaries and then end up in hot water.

But she doesn’t have the right to demand that other employees share their salaries with her. She can ask, but they don’t have to say. And if she badgers them, as you say, it makes for a very unpleasant workplace.

So, how to handle it without stepping over the line? Here are some suggestions.

1. Have a meeting with her and a witness

Sit down with Heidi and make it very clear that she is allowed to discuss her salary but that she’s annoying her coworkers. While she can talk about her pay to her heart’s content, she cannot annoy her coworkers into talking and you consider that behavior bullying.

The reason for the witness is you don’t want her to turn around and claim that you forbade her from talking about her salary. Tell her that some people (most people) are uncomfortable talking about their salaries. Perhaps inform her that about 40% of people don’t even share their salary with their live-in partner or spouse! They of course aren’t going to share that information with a coworker.

She may likely argue that’s all the more reason to encourage her coworkers to talk about salaries. That culture of lips being sealed around salaries does need to change. That may be true, depending on who you talk to. But it’s not appropriate to run that campaign in the office because it’s making people uncomfortable.

Note: Learn more about salary transparency and why it matters.

2. Remind everyone of their rights

Depending on your working environment, you may wish to send out an email to everyone or post a reminder in the break room that states, “Under the National Labor Relations Act, employees are free to discuss their working conditions, including salary. However, you are under no obligation to discuss your salary with anyone and the company will not reveal that information for you. We value your privacy.”

Of course, you can run that by your local attorney to make sure there aren’t any laws you are violating. Technically, you can reveal everyone’s salary, but most businesses don’t want to do that, and most people don’t want their salaries revealed.

3. Follow up consistently

If this doesn’t resolve your issue, you’ll need to readdress the issue with Heidi, but this time around you are not going to talk about salary; you are only going to talk about annoying and bullying behavior. Why? Because salary is simply a red herring. It’s her inability to take no for an answer that causes the problem.

If she constantly asked people about their diets, their personal lives, or where they buy their shoes, it would be equally annoying. Use phrases like, “The other employees don’t appreciate it when you pressure them to reveal private information,” and “Jane said no to your request to discuss salary, so you need to accept that.”

If this doesn’t solve the problem, you’ll need to place her on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Yes, it seems a bit formal, but you’d do the same if it were a different topic. However, because working conditions (and specifically salary) are protected topics of discussion, please consult with your local employment attorney as you write the PIP. You do want to make sure that you are not punishing her for the topic of her annoying questions, but instead, being disruptive to her coworkers and not respecting their wishes to be left alone.

4. Ensure you treat all annoying employees equally

This is a critical step when dealing with situations such as this. If you allow other employees to badger each other or allow general bullying but crack down on Heidi’s request for salary information, she’s going to say her punishment is because it’s about a protected topic (i.e. working conditions) and not because she’s annoying or disruptive.

So keep your eyes and ears open to what else goes on in the breakroom or on Slack or wherever your employees congregate. Make sure you don’t let others get away with bad behavior while you correct Heidi.

And of course, keep good documentation of all this! You’ll need it.

Have an HR or workplace-related question for the Evil HR Lady? Email [email protected] with “Evil HR Lady” in the subject heading and it may be featured in an upcoming article!

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