Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Get What you Deserve

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been at my organization for more than thirty years and am the most experienced colleague in my department. I have mentored others and taught them the job functions. I am able to function in various roles when needed and my opinions and suggestions are often sought by others. I consistently receive “exceeds expectations” in my job evaluations. However, I recently discovered a misplaced document that identified all of our salaries; I make less than everyone! I reported this to my manager and she acknowledged that I am a valuable asset to our department that the salary discrepancy was wrong. There are several “novices” who make more than me; a few males in particular. She notified HR and Employee Services and the response was “we will put her on the list.” I would like to meet with HR to discuss this issue personally. Do you have any suggestions for how to approach this?

Best Regards,


Dear Underpaid,

Thirty years of loyalty, mentoring, exceeding expectations, being an opinion leader, and getting paid less than some of the male novices…ouch! I can certainly understand the sense of unfairness you are experiencing as well as the frustration of not being able to get the situation rectified immediately. You wrote that you would like to discuss this with HR personally and asked for suggestions on your approach. I have a few that might be helpful.

1. Master your Stories. First, do your inner work. Get your head right. In cases of unfairness and injustice, it’s almost automatic to assume the worst about people’s motives and the causes of the unfairness. It’s easy to see yourself as a victim of evil bosses who make their budgets and bonuses by holding your salary flat. Remember to Master Your Stories by asking “Why would reasonable, rational, and decent people not increase my pay—especially relative to lower performers or newer employees?”

It could be that the powers that be are evil and selfish. That’s one possibility. Are there others? Based on your manager’s response, it seems they were unaware of the unfairness and when alerted, your manager called it “wrong” and contacted HR. Perhaps you are not fighting evil people, but rather an unfair system. Edwards Deming famously said, “Good people and bad systems produce bad results.” It’s likely the pay system in your organization does not make adequate adjustments for pay inequalities and the people who manage the system are not making the appropriate fixes. It is in these instances that interpersonal conversations become so crucial. People who encounter problems must make those who are responsible for managing the system aware of the problems as well as of the consequences.

2. Start With Heart. Having got your head right, now work on getting your heart right. Start With Heart by asking yourself “What do I really want?” Do you want: revenge, justice, back pay, an appropriate increase going forward? Unanalyzed motives can derail you and defuse your energies. Get clear on the results you want. For the sake of our discussion, I’m going to assume that you want to receive a fair increase in your pay beginning now. I will also assume that you want an appointment with the most helpful person in HR right away.

3. Next, gather the facts. Gathering the facts is the homework required to have a crucial conversation. Use the information in the document for comparison purposes. Include your performance appraisals, ratings, and the comments of your manager as to how valuable you have been to your department. Remember: no exaggerations, no embellishments, just the facts.

Ask your manager for help in getting an appointment with the most appropriate person in HR. It concerns me that you will be put on “the list.” Apparently there are so many people seeking help that they cannot be handled by regular scheduling; or, the HR group is understaffed. Either way, ask around and have your manager make inquires. Rather than being lumped in with everyone who has a reason to talk with HR, find out who is the right person to help you with a pay inequity problem. This can often save your time and theirs.

In requesting a meeting, follow appropriate protocol to demonstrate Mutual Respect. Make sure to include information about the purpose of your meeting. Identify the pay inequities between you and several “novices.” Also, be sure to emphasize that there are men in your department being paid more for doing the same work that you, a woman, are doing. This is important information to include in your request because it would be easy for someone in Human Resources to assume that you have a gripe about not being paid enough and relegate your request for an appointment to the “business as usual” file. You need to help them understand that yours is an issue that’s important to the organization’s values, pay, and benefit system, and falls into the category of “needs attention now!” By doing this, you are establishing Mutual Purpose because you want the pay inequities and unfairness addressed; they want to make sure the pay and benefit system has no bias based on gender and that it rewards good performance. You are providing important feedback to help the managers of the pay system to identify defects and fix them.

An important caution—in arranging this appointment, don’t preach. Don’t express righteous indignation. Don’t berate or belittle. Don’t threaten or give ultimatums. The Human Resource Specialists are not your enemy. They are there to help you. Make it easy for them to do their job. Be respectful and helpful to them.

Another caution—don’t get sidetracked with questions about the salary document you were not supposed to see. The issue is not about you inappropriately poking into privileged information. Don’t let that become the issue. Upon finding the document, you did not show it around or post it on the Internet. You reported it to your manager, as you should have. You handled the situation correctly. Keep the conversation focused on the pay inequities problem.

I hope these suggestions are helpful. You are right to help solve this problem for your sake and the sake of others. As you are successful, the whole organization will be well served.


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4 thoughts on “How to Get What you Deserve”

  1. Esther Holden

    This advice was right on point. Thanks for sharing this. Often times when we approach others as the “enemy”, we put them on the defensive and then what could have been an easy resolution, turns into an ugly situation. I know HR will work quickly to resolve this situation.

  2. Novice Male

    There is such a sense of familiarity to this letter that I’d love to offer some counter (and perhaps clarifying) comments from the perspective of one of the “males in particular” who must, on a daily basis, overcome the challenges of working alongside a similar individual. An individual, who, I might add, constantly opines to any and all who will listen regarding this gigantic chip on her shoulder.
    First off, whereas length of service might very well be one way of measuring “experience”, it does not automatically equate to “the most experienced colleague” within a department. To the contrary, I’d suggest that while this individual has (apparently) been quite content maintaining her long term position within this one department, it is certainly not unreasonable to suggest that her male colleagues took advantage of a wide variety of both extra-curricular as well as intra-organizational advanced training opportunities…which, of course, represents greater value to an Employer. Furthermore, part of the problem associated with corporate stagnation is that the so-called experience is out dated and irrelevant. Methodologies instituted ten years prior will not necessarily translate into modern day success. If “Underpaid” were my colleague, I can assure you of two things;
    1. My suggestion regarding the “males” extra-curricular training is more than a suggestion…it is a fact. And,
    2. Underpaid is not keeping abreast of the ongoing advances within her field of specialty necessary for optimally performing today’s tasks.
    Secondly, the “Underpaid” in my office also has the perception that her “opinions and suggestions are often sought after” but I would suggest her colleagues are likely to report, more often than not, those opinions are most often unsolicited and quite frequently unwarranted. This behavior occurs in every meeting, every gathering, and every possible office situation at which she is present…every single day. She seems incapable of resisting the urge to supply her colleagues with a never ending flow of suggestions regarding the manner in which they should be performing their duties.
    Thirdly, please read the note again…it was not the discovery of the “misplaced document” Underpaid reported to her manager, it was the indignation of seeing herself at the bottom of the list that she reported. In reality…at least in my experience…Underpaid most certainly DID share the information with everyone else in the department. In fact, thinking this action constituted a terminable offense, I personally shared those details with one of our HR representatives.
    And lastly, the insinuation that my capacity and/or performance (as well as those of my colleagues) is that of a “novice” status has been offered strictly from the perspective that time at one’s current job equates to “experience”. The irony of this can be appreciated by the advice contained in the second paragraph under “Master your Stories”. You see, this individual and I both work in a department where Quality Control is at the very core of what we do and midway through that paragraph; you inserted a quote from C. Edwards Deming.
    Now, on the one hand you have me, who:
    • Was first introduced to (and began implementing) Deming’s “System of Profound Knowledge” nearly 25 years ago.
    • Have lectured my staff (as a manager) on Deming’s principals.
    • Own 800 white marbles and 200 red ones and have both taught and participated in Deming’s “Red Marble Experiment” with my staff.
    • Understand the difference between “common cause variation” and “special cause variation” and the implications associated with each.
    • And have continued a course of both formal as well as casual education related to this field (most recently completing my LEAN training through the University of Michigan’s Department of Engineering).
    And on the other hand, you have Underpaid, who has probably never even heard of Dr. Deming or his work but will see your comment as supportive and encouraging because she sees herself as the victim in all this instead of taking responsibility for her part. And I’m the novice in this department?!?
    I’m going to suggest that in the end, our HR department rightly recognizes the accomplishments of the employees they hire and offer a fair compensation based on the value the individual brings to the organization. I’d further suggest this issue could have been disarmed from the very beginning if Underpaid had utilized the Crucial Conversation Skills she has (apparently) been taught rather than gossip throughout the office and slander her co-workers.
    One of the “novice males in particular”

  3. Peter Alexander

    Mine is not so much not getting paid the right amount, it’s about watching people with less seniority and experience get the promotions I go for because they are friends of the boss.

  4. R. M. POLLARD

    Could you perhaps send this article to Elizabeth Warren?

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