Is it Illegal For A Coworker to Discover And Disclose My Salary?

A question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an employee disclosing salaries of coworkers. 

Question: A coworker of mine logged onto our Office Manager’s computer and logged on (she has access to the code) to our program that manages employee’s salaries. She then proceeded to tell other employees my salary. Is this illegal? My boss does know and says there will be consequences, yet we have not seen them yet.

Response: There are no laws about revealing salaries, but in most companies it is a rule violation that would—and should—merit serious sanctions, up to dismissal. You don’t indicate the size of your organization, but generally, the larger the company, the more severe such a violation is considered to be.

If it appears this is being investigated by your manager, with statements taken from those to whom the coworker reported your salary, as well as from you, or if you have already talked about it at length with your manager, there may be nothing more you can do to push the matter right now.
However, if your manager is the only one who knows about it or if he or she doesn’t appear to be conducting an investigation or taking it higher in the organization, you may need to ask her about it again and give her some things to consider. If it appears nothing at all is going to be done, you may need to discuss the matter at higher levels or with HR.

If the coworker accessed your salary, she may also have accessed other aspects of the personnel or financial records of you and all other employees: social security numbers, bank direct deposit information, time off records and other data. Almost all salary software tracks those categories.
The argument may be made that anyone who has a code to access the software can find out the same information that the coworker obtained. But the point is that your coworker did not treat it confidentially, but rather used it to provide herself with a subject for gossip to coworkers and who knows to who else.

Confidential treatment of personnel records is a vital aspect of ethics and integrity and should be considered a crucial concern. Salary records are especially significant, because they can be such a source of misunderstandings and hostility. In addition, if a company is publicly traded, salary information can be especially sensitive.

If you have not discussed this very much, bring up the subject again and say that the more you think about it, the more concerned you are about your records and the records of others, including the manager. Ask if the software access has now been changed. Let your manager know that you are concerned about more than yourself, you are also concerned about every other confidential issue with which this employee is involved.

The bottom line is that you can’t force your company to take action, but you can remind them or reinforce for them, that the situation goes far beyond you and your salary—as important as that is—it should create concern about many aspects of computer and records security.

If any other coworker mentions it to you, take the approach that you were shocked that anyone in the office would violate the trust of everyone in such a way. You can say that you hope the whole office is reminded of how important it is to keep the personal issues of coworkers strictly confidential. Avoid gossiping about the coworker or purposely trying to turn people against her. Instead, take a leadership role in building an office culture where back-stabbing, gossip and inappropriate actions will not even be considered, because everyone will rise above that kind of behavior.

Best wishes to you with this. If you have the time, let us know what happens.
Tina Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.