What does it take to get fired?
Not much, really.
In fact, whether they realize it or not, most Americans are employed “at will” – which means they can be fired at any time, for any reason, as long as certain laws aren’t being broken in the process.
At-will employment is the default for most companies and, unless your contract or employment documents state otherwise, workers need to realize that they can, legally, be let go on the spot.
Are there some exceptions? Well, of course. State and federal laws protect employees in all but the smallest companies from being fired because of their race, religion, sex, and other protected characteristics. Employees may also be protected by federal whistleblower laws. Your job may also be safe if you exercise certain legal rights, such as the right to take time to serve in the military, serve on a jury, or take medical leave.
So, what about talking about your wages at work – are there any laws about that? For example, can a company impose rules banning employees from sharing wage and salary information? What if you talk about it anyway – is that a reason to be let go?
Surprisingly, the answer is often a firm “no” – despite what a lot of companies say.
Talk Ain’t Cheap: Discussing Wages at Work
Did you know there’s a federal law – and has been since 1935 – protecting your right to talk about your wages? It’s called the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and it protects private sector employees’ right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The National Labor Relations Board has made it clear that this includes the right to discuss wages.
Although the Act protects union and non-union workers alike, there are limitations. Those specifically excluded include:
- Federal, state, or government workers
- Agricultural laborers
- Airline employees
- Supervisors (who aren’t classed as “employees” for this purpose)
- Independent contractors
Workers in religious schools are also governed by their own company’s rules, so they may be limited in how they discuss what they earn.
For those who are covered, though, the law provides protection to discuss wages with co-workers even if your company specifically asks you not to – and provides the chance for individuals to sue companies that try to impose illegal restrictions. Now, other restrictions do still apply. While employees are allowed to discuss wages, companies have no obligation to allow those discussions to take place during work time. Additionally, workers privy to certain protected information – HR reps, for example, who might know about others’ wages already, or anyone working in payroll – may not be able to share that information.
In essence, however, the NLRA has meant that for decades, workers have had a federally protected right to discuss their wages – and employers cannot fire you just for doing so.
Fast Forward to 2014…
In 2014, President Obama issued an executive order snazzily titled "Non-Retaliation for Disclosure of Compensation Information." Why did the President issue an order if the law already existed? Well, there are a few reasons.
The main reason: the order plugs the gap left by the NLRA regarding federal and state workers who are not employed by the private sector. The executive order extends protections to those employed by federal contractors – in language far clearer than the NLRA:
“The contractor will not discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee or applicant for employment because such employee or applicant has inquired about, discussed, or disclosed the compensation of the employee or applicant or another employee or applicant.”
The order was also part of an effort to promote pay equality between the genders, counteracting a longtime imbalance between men and women’s income. If women discuss wages and discover they’re earning less than male colleagues, they need to be able to take action without worrying that their jobs are on the line. The order also carries far more bite than the federal law, and companies that retaliate against employees who discuss wages at work can now lose any federal contracts they hold.
So! It turns out federal law has been protecting your right to share your wage information for a while – and now, those laws are stronger than ever. Some states have additional – and sometimes stronger protections – so, for more information, see this handy Department of Labor fact sheet.
Where’s the Line When You Talk About Pay?
Money will always be a sensitive subject, and just because you can discuss wages doesn’t mean you should. From the NLRA onward, the point of these laws is to provide workers the chance to discuss wages when they have a genuine need to.
If you think you’re being paid less than others because of discrimination or suspect that your company is unfairly underpaying some workers, you may want to think about wage talk. If you’re just curious what a colleague makes, you may be overstepping the line.
The law doesn’t compel your colleagues to tell you how much they earn and, in most cases, companies have no obligation to reveal anyone else’s wages. While a general policy of being open about pay can be positive – especially ensuring that minorities and women are not facing wage discrimination – there are always various factors involved in wage decisions. And, you need to find the middle ground between privacy laws and the requirements of the Equal Pay Act. If the information might help workers negotiate for better pay, great. If it only serves to makes others feel worse about their wages, tread carefully.
It’s not unusual for companies to ask employees to sign agreements or contracts with wording that covers wage talk, but this shouldn’t affect your rights. Employers can’t devise policies that circumvent federal law. For instance, you can’t sign away your right to overtime pay just because your employer has you sign something that says you won’t work overtime, just as you can’t give up your right to talk about your wages by signing an (effectively illegal) agreement. Sometimes, the benefit of the doubt can also help: is your company really trying to deny you your rights, or simply help the workplace run smoother by avoiding an emotive subject that can lead to judgments and arguments?
Part of being a good employee is knowing your rights, but also knowing when and how to use them. Awkward discussions of how much you earn are, for the most part, best avoided – but if you ever really need to, remember that you have a right to talk openly about wages, with the full weight of the law on your side.