A reader writes:
When my husband first began his employment, one of the forms he had to complete was a tax withholding form that asked for our household income. I make a good salary – not exorbitant, but one that puts us in the mid-range of the 2013 tax brackets for married couples filing jointly. It is also substantially more than what my husband makes. We are both comfortable with this.
Our concern is about how his employer handled this information. Specifically, we assumed, like most employment information, that it would be processed through HR and then kept confidential. However, this is a small company and they do not have a formal HR department. Instead, the owners handle all of the paperwork. In this case, they expressed surprise at how much I make, and told my husband’s coworkers, who then also expressed surprise/interest to my husband (as in “wow your wife sure makes a lot”). Not only do I feel like this was an invasion of our privacy, but I’m also concerned that they are using this information to avoid giving him a raise. Over the two years he has worked there, they have given him consistently positive feedback and increased responsibility. But when he recently requested a raise, they said they couldn’t afford it. A few days after they told him that, they asked my husband’s coworker if I was still making the same salary. This coworker wouldn’t know my salary from us, but he and my husband are friends and he told my husband the owners were asking, as a heads-up to us.
First, should we have ever shared this information with his employer – could we have refused to complete this form? I have never been asked by my employer for my husband’s salary, even for tax withholding purposes, but at the time we thought it was a legitimate request. Also, short of leaving, is there anything my husband can do at this point to prevent them from using my salary against him?
First, no, there’s no reason your husband’s employer needed that information. Your husband might use that information to calculate the withholdings he wants on his paycheck, and it’s normal to give employees a form to help them figure that out — but that worksheet isn’t intended to be provided back to the employer with the rest of the tax paperwork. It’s just for your own use.
When your husband’s employer saw that information had been turned back in to them, they should have disregarded it. The fact that they not only looked at it but then chose to discuss it with other people is wildly inappropriate.
There’s no way to know for sure if the employer is using this information to avoid giving your husband a raise, but I can see why your husband suspects it. There’s not really anything he can do to stop that from happening, but he could certainly talk to his manager about it.
If he wants to go that route, he could say something like this: “Jane, I’m uncomfortable with you discussing my wife’s salary with me or with anyone else here. That’s not information that you should ever have had, and it’s certainly not something I’m okay with you discussing with others. I certainly hope that it doesn’t factor into your thinking when we discuss my own compensation.”
The thing is, though, that last sentence is a weird one if they didn’t actually think about your salary when denying him a raise. If it never occurred to them to factor that in (and he was denied a raise for the same reasons anyone else might be denied a raise) but he raises the specter of them doing it anyway, it’s going to come off oddly.
So he might be better off handling it the same way he normally would if he were turned down for a raise — which would mean deciding if he’s still willing to do the job at his current salary and looking at other jobs if he’s not.
But either way, this is a real misstep on his employer’s part, and he should take it as a sign that they can’t be trusted to be discreet with other potentially sensitive information in their possession.