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Can Employees Refuse a Pay Increase – Ask #HR Bartender

I’ve always (jokingly) said that the one thing I can count on is an employee not refusing a pay increase. Well, this reader note shows me that’s not always the case.

Hello! I have a problem I’m hoping you can help me with. I told my boss that I wanted to refuse my salary increase of 1% which amounts to less than $700/annually (gross). He said that I need to speak with HR, who said they can’t take the pay increase back because it’s a law in Massachusetts and would look like the company is discriminating against me. I gave the company a letter in writing that I was refusing the increase.

The reason I’m so adamant about the refusal is because the pay increase was given to me after I complained to HR about my boss. Unfortunately, HR and my boss are buddies. Is there any way I can have the company take back the increase OR is there a law in MA that states that once raises are given they can’t be taken back? Thank you.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of someone wanting to turn down a pay increase. So, I decided to reach out for some insights. Please welcome Robert Teachout, SHRM-SCP of HR Crossroads Communications, where he focuses on the intersection of employment law and human resources. You probably recognize his name from his articles on the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) website and his time as senior editor at Thompson Information Services.

pay, pay increase, HR, HR Bartender, department of labor, retaliation

As a reminder, Robert’s comments should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to any specific factual situations. If you have detailed questions, they should be addressed directly with your friendly neighborhood labor attorney.

Robert, I don’t want to put you on the spot and ask if refusing a pay increase is a state law. What I think readers would like to know is, when they hear that the company can’t do something because of a law, where can the employee go to verify the comment? 

[Teachout] I’d suggest starting at the source. Ask the HR representative. ‘I’m not sure I understand. Would you please explain that to me?’ and ‘Where can I find more information about that?’ are good questions to open the door for HR to help. Even if the employee feels a complete answer isn’t provided, he/she will have more information to use in further efforts. 

There are other resources as well. Every state has a Department of Labor and an Attorney General’s Office. These are official and reliable places to verify legal information. There generally is an e-mail address or a phone number listed on the official agency website that an employee can use to contact the agency with a question.

I didn’t mention searching the Internet until last, because not all information on the Internet is valid. And some is just plain wrong! When searching the internet for answers, an employee needs to be able to recognize whether a website is reliable and trustworthy, and the information is valid. The answer provided on a personal website is not going to have the same reliability as one from a government agency website. Be careful. 

One thing that I found interesting in the note was the comment about HR and the employee’s boss being “buddies”. What are 1-2 things that HR professionals can do to ensure they are viewed as objective and impartial? 

Teachout, Robert Teachout, Crossroads, pay, pay increase[Teachout] It seems trite, and I’m not trying to be cute, but to be viewed as objective and impartial, be objective and impartial. Be professional. That can’t be faked. HR needs to be open and transparent when they deal with employee concerns. 

Sadly, perception is reality to employees in most situations. Employees usually see HR as working on behalf of the employer and management from the start of their work experience; so, HR already has a hurdle to get over to gain employees’ trust.  If employees see HR being buddy-buddy with managers, they will not trust HR to be fair or to be genuinely concerned about employee interests. One of the best explanations I’ve seen about why that’s a bad idea was written by Alison Green in her “Ask a Manager” column titled, “Can you have close work friendships when you’re in HR?”. I heartily recommend it to your readers. 

One of the most important ways for HR to be trusted and have a reputation for being fair and objective is to fully and fairly investigate employee complaints. Have a process that gathers information from both managers and employees. Make sure the employee knows what that process is. Follow it every time. 

If HR is viewed as the “Department of No,” it is doing something wrong. It is impossible for a company’s position to be right 100 percent of the time. When an employee’s complaint is valid, let them know the issue will be addressed and how — that is, say ‘yes.’ When it is necessary to say ‘no,’ it isn’t enough just to give an employee an answer. Explain the reasoning behind a decision and the context. And whatever you do, don’t feed the employee a lie. Don’t do it to cover for the company or to ‘let an employee down easy.’ Lying is a trust destroyer.   

There’s obviously a lot going on here with the employee complaining about their boss, the pay increase, etc. Because we don’t have the whole story, we can’t comment on it. But where can an employee go to explain the entire pay increase situation and seek guidance? 

[Teachout] An employee can contact an employment law attorney or seek help from a law clinic. If there is a union at the workplace, the employee can talk with a union shop steward. These resources can help an employee to piece together and understand any information that he or she has found. They also can offer suggestions about options the employee has for handling the work situation. 

I didn’t mention going to HR in this case, because the note mentioned the possible conflict of interest in this situation. Otherwise, that is the first place I’d recommend an employee start. HR professionals (particularly those who have a degree in HR or HR certification) are trained to assess such issues and can provide answers relevant to the employee’s work situation.

Last question. In my experience, sometimes employees in these situations can feel they are being treated differently because of their actions. If an employee feels they are being retaliated against, where can they go to get some guidance? 

I hear ‘retaliation’ and I shudder. It is a very serious issue. It doubles down on any other employee complaint. 

I’d start with the employee handbook. Every handbook should have a policy that details to whom an employee may report alleged discrimination and retaliation. There should be more than one avenue for filing such a complaint, to prevent an employee from having to make a complaint directly to the manager being complained about. When doing so, an employee needs to document everything: who they spoke with, when, where, and what was said. Also, keep a printout of emails sent or received. These records will be important if the company’s response does not resolve the complaint to the employee’s satisfaction. 

If the company does not resolve the issue, or the employee is unsatisfied with the response, then the employee needs to consider getting legal advice. A qualified employment law attorney is one of the best resources to turn to in such situations.  If there is a union, the employee should talk to the shop steward; the union may assist in connecting the employee with an attorney. There also are legal clinics and non-profit organizations that exist to help employees understand their rights in such circumstances for little or no charge.

Finally, an employee may consider going to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the U.S. Department of Labor, or their state’s equivalent agencies. These agencies can offer advice, guidance, and, if necessary, assistance in bringing a complaint.

My thanks to Robert for sharing his knowledge with us. Be sure to connect with him on Twitter @HRCrossRdsComm. And if you’re wondering what his suggestion would be to the reader about their pay increase? “Take the raise. If you really are dissatisfied with the situation, the company, and its explanation, then you can use the extra income to help you in your secret job hunt.”

Employees shouldn’t feel confused about their employment. Take advantage of the resources available to you.

Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby near the slippery-when-wet beach in Miami, FL

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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