How To Complain To Your Boss About Your Pay

Nobody ever says, “Hey boss, I think you’re paying me TOO MUCH money. Would you mind giving me a little less?” 

No. Of course not. 

You’re pretty much only ever going to say something about your pay in one of two situations: 

  1. You feel like the way you are being paid is somehow unfair or wrong
  2. You want to ask for more pay (like a raise)

How you handle each situation is a little different. 

How To Talk To Your Boss About Unfair or Illegal Pay Practices 

First it is important to differentiate between a pay practice that is illegal – that is, literally against the law – versus just not “fair.” 

Let’s say you are an hourly paid employee and when you work over 40 hours a week your boss just pays you at a “straight time” rate (meaning your normal hourly rate rather than “time and a half”). With a very few exceptions, that is illegal, under state or federal law or both.  

However, calling your boss out on an illegal pay practice may be downright frightening. Maybe he’s asked you to agree to it. Maybe you fear he’ll fire you if you say something about it. Maybe you have a criminal history or aren’t in the country legally and you know he’ll somehow try to use that against you if you try to challenge the practice.  

The good news is that under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as many states’ wage laws, it is illegal for your boss to retaliate against you for taking action in regard to wages the law says you are entitled to receive. So, if your boss does try to cut your hours or lower your rate of pay or even fire you, you would have a claim to bring against him… which often means that he’ll think twice before doing something like that. 

If the pay practice seems unfair, it could well be that it is also illegal but you may just not know one way or the other. That’s ok – you don’t have to be an expert. The important thing there is to seek out some advice rather than just making assumptions one way or the other. Know your rights!! Know what they are… and what they aren’t. 

If you are paid unfairly but in a way that is legal – like if you have been working in a position longer than someone else but are making less money, or your salary level is the same as someone else’s whose role requires way less expertise, or the boss’s nephew is on payroll but just sits around all day while you work your tail off…. That’s where it’s important to tread lightly and get good advice. You may or may not have those protections of the wage laws. 

How To Ask For A Raise 

In the vast majority of employment situations, you are not legally entitled to receive a raise – even if you’ve worked there many years, even if others are getting a raise, even if you did a great job. There are some exceptions (such as if there is a contract promising you a raise on a certain schedule) but generally speaking there’s nothing that can make your boss give you a raise.  

But, that doesn’t mean you can’t still get one. 

First, it is important to identify who in your company actually has the authority to give you a raise, who has no authority, and who may not have the authority per se but could put in a good word for you. Don’t waste your time muttering and complaining to someone who has no authority about wanting more money – it will do you no good. 

Once you’ve identified who the right person or people are to talk to, probably the single most important thing to do is to try to put yourself in their shoes. For example, do they have a payroll budget that they have to fit everybody into regardless of productivity? Or if productivity increases do they have more room for wage increases? If your boss has a boss, what numbers do you think the upper boss is requiring your boss to meet? Etc. Obviously this can vary widely depending on what kind of job and company it is. 

Now comes the important part: looking for the win-win. To the best you can, try to determine how you can help your boss achieve her numbers, or help her look good to her boss – and then figure out your role in making that into a reality. For example, if your boss is responsible for seeing that your team produces 100 widgets but would get a bonus if 125 were made, maybe you find a way to be a little bit more efficient getting stuff done but also ask if your team can work another 5 hours a week (of overtime). This completely shifts the conversation from you versus your boss (the classic employee vs. management dynamic) to one of you and your boss both winning. 

Another example would be to look for opportunities for improvement in the company, where you can make a suggestion that if  you are able to improve it in some specified way you would be entitled to a certain bonus. There are all kinds of different opportunities once you start looking at it in the right way. 

Let’s be honest though: there are some bosses, and some companies, that just won’t be receptive to this kind of thinking no matter how great your ideas are.  If you make a couple of attempts at win-win thinking and they still aren’t budging, that may be a sign that you should be taking a good hard look at things. In those situations, it is probably very unlikely that things are going to get better. Do you want to remain there as things are? There’s no right answer, but chances are you wouldn’t be reading this far down an article if you weren’t unhappy with where you are. Trust your gut.