Google case highlights employee salary discussions

A dummy paycheque. Stock photo by Getty Images

Can an employer fire you for discussing your salary with coworkers?

The quick answer is: absolutely not. But a recent case involving a former Google employee presents an interesting scenario.

Erica Baker, who worked as an engineer at the popular search engine company for nine years, recently published a series of tweets in which she recounted how she was reprimanded and denied bonuses after her boss discovered Baker had created an internal spreadsheet on which about five percent of Google staff had shared their salary details.

Google employs more than 40,000 people worldwide.

The following is Baker’s Twitter chain:

Baker was likely not sufficiently high up the Google food chain for her salary-sharing to merit a firing , says Toronto labour lawyer Danny Kastner.

“Most employment agreements do not cover [talking about] employee salaries,” says the founding partner at Kastner Law. “It changes once you get to much higher level, executive-type employment, where you start to see much stricter and more specific confidentiality provisions in their contractual documents that restrict them from speaking to others about it.”

That’s because those executive roles often come with a fiduciary responsibility, because they are privy to very sensitive information about the company that could be damaging if it were made public.

“They owe a higher level of duty to the employer and that may well cover not disclosing any aspect of their employment agreement that they have with other colleagues,” says Kastner. 

So if it’s not specifically prohibited by a confidentiality agreement, or inherently restricted by the employee’s lofty status, sharing your salary with fellow employees is perfectly legit.

In some cases, such as with unionized work places, salary disclosure is mandated by the collective bargaining agreement. And where no union exists, this is often the first step to forming one, says Kastner.

“In Canada, if employees discussed salary with each other for the purpose of considering unionization, that would also be protected activity.”

Barring any union agitation, Kastner says the employer is free to ban any public salary disclosure in the employment contract.

“There’s nothing wrong with doing that as long as the employee signs on with it,” he adds.

There’s also nothing wrong with the employee refusing to sign the contract so long as that provision is included. Then it just becomes a negotiation.
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