Unequal Pay Dilemma: When your colleague earns more than you

The 'Dear Karin' Advice Column

Unequal Pay Dilemma (c) Karinsieger.com

In my advice column #DearKarin I offer to help with some questions and dilemma’s. Today’s question is about how to deal with an unequal pay dilemma.


<strong>Dear Karin,</strong>

I recently discovered that a male coworker is making 12k more a year than I do for a similar yet less important job. In addition, I have seniority over this person.

My dilemma is that:
#1 this male coworker is a friend
#2 I have a very close relationship with the company I work for. I am afraid to burn bridges, and even more so, this is a serious accusation and could have really severe consequences for the company.
#3 I was accidentally given access to the information.

I am a serious feminist and I cannot reconcile letting this go. But I also don’t feel right starting initiating something potentially devastating to the company, I have worked for five years and the people I consider to be friends.



(1st June 2019)


Dear Vexed,

Thanks for writing in and explaining a bit about your unequal pay dilemma. I hope I understood it all correctly and can assist you in deciding what to do about it.

1. What are the facts?

Dilemmas often bring a lot of emotional muddle, conflicts and lack of clarity. That is why we need to be clear about the facts, in a rational and factual manner.

What are the facts of your dilemma? You mention unequal pay “accusations”. Are they borne out by facts or hear-say?

What is the legal situation regards equal pay (which may vary from country to country)? And what legal support may you be entitled to?

Which, if any, legal implications may there be for you, in terms of how you obtained this information?

2. What is the conflict about?

You sound clear about what you object to (unequal pay), and what you think is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

It seems, issues of your own moral values and beliefs, of loyalties, friendships and uncertainty about future implications of your actions are causing a conflict for you.

I would also consider what your general / default attitude is towards friendships and conflicts.  Do you tend to maintain the former at a (any?) cost, or try not to disappoint? Do you tend to avoid the latter?

Yes, sometimes we have to decide whether to think short- or long-term, or whether none of this matters, because our moral compass is all that counts.

3. What to do and how to do it?

The minute we find out something like that, things have changed and cannot be undone. You don’t want to burn bridges. But the knowledge of uncomfortable truths can start burning bridges in our head, even if we don’t do anything about it.

Sooner or later our behaviour will reflect our feelings, which can turn into resentment and distrust. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to be productive, creative and enjoy what we do.

Now it all depends on what you do as a result of knowing what you know.

Whatever you do, also try and check in with yourself regards how you may feel about your choice in the future. Sometimes, decisions can turn into painful regrets. I would always encourage the attitude of

“I am doing the best I can. My opinions may change over time. Living is about learning and I have to respect myself for the old choices I made, even if I would not make them again.”

So, how to make sense?

What do you want?

And is what you want, what you will try and get?

In no particular order:

Scenario 1

How would you feel about carrying on as if nothing has happened, knowing what you know now about the unequal pay? How would you feel about your colleague, friends, the organisation and yourself?

Scenario 2

If you left without addressing what you have found out: How would you feel about your colleague, friends, the organisation and yourself?

Scenario 3

If you were to address what you know – with what aim: an adjustment in salary and getting equal pay, an apology, trying to find out about the reasoning behind this discrepancy?

How would you approach this:

  • directly and formally,
  • indirectly and informally,
  • informally and then potentially or definitely formally?

Would you speak with your line manager, HR, another colleague or external person who could try and mediate?


What is the worst that could happen? And how would you deal with that? Because we can always figure it out and deal with it.

4. Remember

Friendships and organisations are living things. Sometimes they cause discomfort, do wrong (whether intentionally or not), need to learn and need to be challenged. Without that there may be no growth. Challenging can lead to conflict; it can also lead to strength.

How organisations / friends deal with challenges or when we point out their mistakes, that will say a lot about them, and whether it is the right place for us to be.

A lot of the time, the way we approach things can help set the tone of how potentially difficult situations are dealt with and resolved. Sometimes tact and diplomacy can get you what you want. It can help save face for the one who has done wrong. And sometimes this does not help at all, back-fires and a more explicit approach is needed. You will be the best judge of what is appropriate.

If you leave it or walk away, what may that do to your self-confidence and self-worth? And how may that potentially impact your confidence as an employee in future job scenarios?

Whatever you do…

Take the time you need to think it through and be prepared. Try and be calm and convinced of your approach. Be firm yet flexible.

I hope these thoughts are of some assistance and I wish you well.

Very best.


(5th June 2019)

Image courtesy of Nattanan23

Thanks to all my readers, my website is among the Top 10 UK Psychotherapy Blog



  1. An interesting – and sadly quite common – dilemma, Karin. I was in a similar situation, twenty years ago, the main difference being that one of the other Directors in the company decided to publish the salaries of his team – information which had been secret until then. I discovered that several members of his team were on a higher salary than me, even though they had less than two years’ experience while I had more than ten. As the information had been made public (within the company) I approached my Director, and he spoke with the relevant parties – who hadn’t realised how experienced I was, and presumably didn’t want to risk losing me. As a result, my salary was increased to bring it in line with my colleagues – who all happened to be male. I felt satisfied and didn’t hold a grudge, because each Director had unilaterally decided the salaries of their staff until then. I continued to enjoy working at the company and took this incident as merely an unintentional oversight – and I was grateful to the Director who broke ranks and published the information.

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