Many people who are trying to figure out whether they've been the victim of discrimination miss an obvious way to find out how much coworkers are making: asking them. Some employers try to prevent this by putting in handbooks or contracts a provision prohibiting salary discussions among coworkers. Those employers are, for the most part, breaking the law.
If you work for a non-government employer and aren't a supervisor or management, you likely have the absolute right to discuss your salary, benefits and other working conditions with your coworkers.
The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects employees who engage in concerted activity to improve working conditions. That means you can discuss pay and benefits with coworkers and the employer is not allowed to punish you for doing so.
Before you defy management directives and start discreetly asking trusted coworkers to exchange salary information, you should make sure you aren't exempt from this law. While the vast majority of non-government employers are covered, some are exempt. Independent contractors and supervisors are exempt. But many people classified as contractors are misclassified and are really employees. You may be protected even if you think you aren't.
Even if you're allowed by law to discuss pay with coworkers, I still suggest using some sense. Some people are offended if you ask about money. Make sure you trust the person and have a good idea that they won't mind. If it's someone you suspect is also underpaid, you might convince them to talk to you with some evidence, such as telling them that you know John Smith and Jim Doe make more than you for the same work, but you are wondering if other women in the company are also underpaid for the same work. Another time to ask is when someone is leaving. They may mind less if they're on their way out the door.
What you don't want to do is sneak into HR and look at their payroll records, hack the payroll company computers, or put a tape recorder in someone's office hoping to catch them in salary discussions. Those tactics are illegal. You not only will be fired if you're caught - you might go to jail.
If your company has an illegal policy or contract saying you can't discuss salary with coworkers, one option is to report them to the NLRB. Cases saying these prohibitions are illegal have been around way before the current issue arose about the current NLRB's makeup, so the fact that these policies are illegal won't change, no matter how optimistic employer organizations get. Even if you haven't been fired based on an illegal policy, you can file a complaint and NLRB may force your employer to change their evil ways.
If you think you're the victim of discrimination, one way to prove it is to prove you're paid less than others in a different category than you. Don't write off the easiest way to find out if you're paid unfairly. Go ahead. Take a coworker to lunch. Ask. You might be surprised by what you find out.
Have a general question about employment law? Want to share a story? I welcome all comments and questions. I can't give legal advice here about specific situations but will be glad to discuss general issues and try to point you in the right direction. If you need legal advice, contact an employment lawyer in your state. Remember, anything you post here will be seen publicly, and I will comment publicly on it. It will not be confidential. Govern yourself accordingly. If you want to communicate with me confidentially as Donna Ballman, Florida lawyer rather than as Donna Ballman, blogger, my firm's website is here.