Handling common complaints about pay

Salary gripes are among the most difficult problems you’ll face as a supervisor. Because compensation decisions—often beyond your control— affect employees’ self-esteem and standard of living, you’ll have to approach the problem sensitively, from the moment your employee expresses his complaint. Remember, the willingness of your employees to bring their needs to your attention is a sign of your supervisory effectiveness. Thank the employee for coming to see you with his problem and listen.

Common gripe #1: My co-worker makes more than I do. Salaries need not be equal to be equitable—but many employees don’t understand this. Explain all the considerations that go into salary setting: performance, skills, education, experience, longevity, etc. Keep the explanation general, and avoid confidential employee-to-employee comparisons.

Common gripe #2: People who do similar work in other organizations make more than I do. No two organizations have identical compensation programs. In fact, budgets, funding, profitability and work output can create widely varying salary ranges in a single community. Moreover, people in higher cost-of-living areas will tend to be paid more than someone in a lower cost-of-living region, doing virtually the same work.

Common gripe #3: I had a great performance review, but a meager raise. What’s the organization’s practice? Perhaps the “merit” pay pool is very small—and the employee received the maximum merit increase possible. Perhaps other employees had terrific appraisals as well—and deserved similar increases from your limited merit budget. Or perhaps general economic conditions prevent you from offering large merit increases this year. Whatever the reason, explain it honestly and thoroughly.

Common gripe #4: I can’t make ends meet on my salary. You can’t solve this one, no matter how hard you try. Nor should you. While you may wish to sensitively suggest financial counseling to your employee, be clear that neither you nor the organization can make compensation decisions based on personal financial needs.

Common gripe #5: I’m the victim of discrimination. If your employee feels he or she is performing the same job as another employee but receiving less pay because of age, sex or race, listen attentively. Then consult with HR immediately. Allegations of discrimination raise a variety of complex legal issues, from supervisory motives to statistical compensation norms in your industry. Do not attempt to solve this with an off-the-cuff explanation.