It can happen to the best of us. You think that you have done a stellar job of negotiating your compensation package only to find out shortly after you start that your pay is substantially lower than a colleague in the same position.
Your first instinct might be to go running into your supervisor’s office, screaming about the injustice of it all. But you’ll be sorry if you take such a combative approach.
This is a tricky position to be in. “On the one hand, you want to be paid appropriately for the skills you’re contributing to the business — and rightly so,” said Michael Bennett, managing director and co-founder of London-based recruitment and talent management consultancy Rethink Group in an email. “However, you also don’t want to be the new person that comes in and starts rocking the boat.”
But the situation isn’t hopeless. Try one of these less confrontational approaches to renegotiating your salary after you’ve started work.
You have a few options, according to Bennett. “Depending on the company set up, either speak directly to your line manager or go through HR and highlight your concern,” he said.
Not always equal
But before you do that, realise that there could be good reasons why your colleague is being paid more than you.
“They may even have simply joined the organisation at a time when market rates were different than they currently are, meaning they were able to secure a more lucrative deal,” he said. “So make sure you find out all the facts first.”
And rarely is it as simple as it might seem, so you really need to make sure you are right, according to Benoit Vialle, the chief operating officer of Northern California-based startup NakedWines.com. “Are you in the exact same position? Does that person share a title but have more responsibilities? Did they get their salary through seniority or performance bonuses?”
Depending on the position, experience can trump equal pay. “If you drive the underground, it does not affect your performance if you are holding a doctorate in archaeology,” said Jorg Stegemann who heads up Kennedy Executive Search with offices in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Paris and Prague. “In others, it does make a difference.”
So, in the case of the subway driver, the pay should probably be equal, but “if I am regional manager for a company and my regional manager colleague has more experience and a higher salary, there is no reason to complain,” he said.
Setting the stage
You’ll want to be proactive and quantify your impact, according to Vialle. “Make sure that your contribution adds value to the company and do your best to quantify the positive impact you are having,” he said in an email. “It will make the discussion of asking for more compensation if you hit incremental results much easier and a no-brainer for your employer.”
Set clear expectations for yourself. “Once you're settled in and you're sure you’re being paid less than the other person for the same job, and you know you want to be paid more, let the decision makers know that you're hungry for more,” Vialle said. It's highly unlikely that an employer will give you a higher salary just because you say it's the fair thing to do. “Be ready to take on more work or to hit certain benchmarks to unlock higher pay,” he said.
And work to differentiate yourself. “If you're in the exact same position as somebody earning more than you, take on projects that they don't do and over-perform,” he said.
Is the law on your side?
Depending on where you live, you may legally have the right to ask about pay discrepancy. For example, in both the US and Canada, a company cannot legally punish you for questioning your pay.
“The right and legal thing to do is approach your manager with the information and have a healthy dialogue to the reasons the company is paying different,” said Dane Atkinson, CEO of New York-based marketing analytics company SumAll, in an email. SumAll offers salary transparency for all its employees via a shared Google doc its staff can access at any time (some people check it regularly, others rarely or never, according to Atkinson). “You will be surprised at how smooth the conversation goes when you are talking about the real issue at hand.”
Just don't allow yourself to take a hostile approach to the conversation, Atkinson said. Use the knowledge to find out what you can do about it to bring your salary up, he said, and understand that there are always outside factors at play.
Save it for later
If you’re not interested in any confrontation so early in your new job, one option would be to file the information away in your head until your first salary review. Then, you can use it as a lever, said Rethink Group’s Bennett. Start by asking how you can increase your salary or bonus. In other words, what do you need to achieve to move up?
“Obviously, this approach will take longer but sometimes it can be effective to take a step back and review your options,” said Bennett. “There’s nothing to be gained from kicking down your boss’s door and publicly demanding a salary increase.”
Career Coach is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the career turning points and questions many professionals face. We welcome questions from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor's Note (17 August 2015): In light of news of Amazon.com's working conditions, BBC Capital is bringing back this piece from our archives. A look at companies that say shorter days make for much more productive workers, and those who say it simply doesn't work.