I Found Out My Male Colleague Made More Than Me

Here is a fun WWYD:

I’ve been temping at Company X, a large company in Chicago, since the beginning of last August. I started temping here because I’d heard it was a good way to get hired on full time, and I liked the company. While I was here, my boss fought to get me hired, but she was turned down. I decided to change careers and go back to grad school.

My last day is this Friday. I start school in June. I will probably never live in this town again, not to mention never work in this industry.

When I started out here, I was making $12 an hour. I clearly remember the interview at the temp agency — I said that I really wanted to work at Company X, and I had made about $40K in past jobs. The first, last, and only time I’d temped, it had been for $14/hour, and I expected something similar. (I had knowingly taken a pay cut, and decided to temp, in order to change careers).

“We really can’t do that,” said the woman interviewing me, “but we can start you out at $12. Would that be ok?” She did that passive/aggressive thing where she made it my choice to say yes or no, but also made it clear that being considered to temp at Company X was contingent on taking a huge pay cut. I conceded.

A couple months into temping at Company X, I was talking to a friend and fellow temp who had been brought on at the same time as me. Let’s call him George. “I just can’t take another week of this $14 per hour,” he said. “I need a raise.”

“$14 per hour?” I said. “Excuse me?”

We then had a brief conversation where it became obvious that George’s initial conversation with the temp agency had gone quite differently. He’d asked for $14, and they’d said fine. George and I are the exact same age, with similar backgrounds, although it sounds like I’ve been paid a tad higher than he has in the past. Even in this honest conversation, I felt a little tentative — I’m prohibited from discussing my compensation at work. We did determine, though, that we’d been given very different job descriptions when we were brought on, despite the fact that we were doing literally the same thing.

I fumed and fumed, and contemplated trying to go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, even though I didn’t know (and still don’t) if they would have jurisdiction over my employment situation. Eventually, I did something that I privately thought was quite clever — I wrote to the temp agency and asked for a raise, completely omitting the fact that I was aware that I was being paid less than a man with a similar background who was doing the same job that I was. I wrote to the temp agency about how I’d shown up at work and immediately started doing a job that was nothing like the one I’d been promised in the email I’d received — my job was much more complicated and entailed much more responsibility. I laid out the reasons why I thought I deserved a raise, simply on the merits of the work I was doing.

I was given a raise, to $14, even though I’d never mentioned a figure. It was almost as if someone had taken a look at what the other temps in my department were making and had realized the mistake. Except … this was not made retroactive. I was given the raise starting the next week. I quickly crunched the numbers, and calculated that I’d missed out on $960 of pay.

It is now months later, and I’m leaving, and I can’t let go of the $960 that I basically feel like I am owed. What should I do? Should I confront the temp agency about the truth? Part of what’s so frustrating about this is that I have no way to prove that they were deliberately paying me less because I am female. They could have been paying me less because they didn’t understand what I was going to be doing at work. When I started, they told me I’d be in Sales. I’m in Logistics. Was I sent to the wrong department on my first day at work? Or are these people just the scum of the earth? I have no way of knowing.

What should I do! Or, if it’s a more interesting answer, what should I have done? — K.

K., you did exactly what I would have done in this situation, which was talk with the people in charge and advocate for a raise based on my own merits. I’m glad you did that, and that you received a pay increase.

In fact, I was in this position (of being given a job and coming to the realization that I was being severely underpaid) and wrote about how I found out and what I did in a previous WWYD column I wrote back in September (see it here).

So to answer your question: “Should I confront the temp agency about the truth?”

If you look at my previous column, you’ll see that while advocated for a higher salary, I did not tell my boss that I knew that the person who had my position previously earned so much more than I did. There was little value in me doing so because the goal was to get a raise, not to accuse my boss of underpaying me and having him feel like I was being combative. Part of succeeding in the workplace, unfortunately, is figuring out how to navigate office politics.

Telling the temp agency that you know George was paid $2 an hour more than you would probably make you feel better by letting you get this off your chest, but what else would it do? It would unlikely get the $960 you feel owed because, as you say, you have no way to prove that the agency was paying you less because you’re a woman. Perhaps this temp agency is the scum of the earth and underpaying workers at every chance they get. Perhaps they’re incompetent and paid you the wrong amount for the wrong job. You can’t know for sure, and you shouldn’t let it drive you crazy.

I would leave this experience behind and focus on getting paid what I need to get paid at the next job.

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