Federal law mandates that businesses pay all of their workers fairly. What constitutes a fair wage depends on the industry, the prevailing wage for the profession and what the company pays other workers.
For a worker to know if they receive fair compensation for their work, they typically need to know what other people in the same position earn. Many businesses try to prevent their staff members from discussing their wages openly. The business that employs you might even have a policy in its employment handbook forbidding the discussion of wages between co-workers.
If you want to ask other people in your department what they make, can your employer penalize you for breaching the company’s wage secrecy contract clause?
Wage secrecy requirements are typically not enforceable
As a non-unionized employee, you have the right to protect yourself in the workplace and even organize with your co-workers. Successfully doing so typically requires communication with other people at the company and information sharing.
You won’t know, for example, realize that you make 30% less than everybody else on your team unless you find out what they all receive in pay. Your right to organize and demand fair wages trumps the right of your employer to compel wage secrecy as a term in their workers’ employment contracts.
Your employer cannot penalize you for talking about your wages with your coworkers. If they do, you may be able to bring a claim against them.
Punishing you for asserting your rights is unfair retaliation
Laws against discrimination ban the practice of paying workers unevenly and treating them differently based on protected characteristics like their sex, race and age. Federal employment laws also prohibit employers from penalizing workers who speak up against bad employment practices.
Firing a worker for realizing they make less than their co-workers is arguably both retaliation. This remains true even if the company has a wage secrecy policy that the work in question violated by conversing about work with their team members.
Workers who suffer career consequences for inquiring about the salaries their co-workers make could be in a position to take legal action against their employer. Recognizing wage secrecy and uneven wages as a form of workplace discrimination could help you protect your career.