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Ask HN: My company is participating in discriminatory pay practices
34 points by codergal on Aug 26, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments
A couple coworkers have mentioned recently that they found out they weren't making as much as equally or less qualified men at our start-up (to the tune of 15-25k differences), and someone in HR just tipped me off that this has been happening across the board (and includes my own salary). It's a mid-size YC company that I won't name here of course....obviously I'm planning on leaving, but what's the correct course of action here? Is this something that's wise to report?

addendum: in one of the cases, the man's initial offer was 15k more (even though he didn't do as well in interviews) and we wouldn't respond to the woman's attempts to negotiate (and apparently started asking about her personal finances). I don't think negotiation is a huge factor here, though I know that's a common cause.

You can (and should) complain directly, either to EEOC or, in California, to DFEH --- you can do that online at:


Is there more than one person concerned about the pay gap? Can you get more than one person to file a complaint?

How certain are you this happening? Have you talked to the cofounders? I'm not suggesting its not happening, and its certainly a lawsuit if it is the case but be damn sure that they are doing it before you take any legal action/go open with it. It would destroy you along with them if you take it to the public and you are wrong. If you can without a reasonable doubt say that they are, and have evidence that isn't based on negotiations or bonuses, then by all means sue them in court: you are owed money. This is a really hard case to prove though because the burden of proof is on your and thus you must be able to prove via emails from the founders/HR or recorded chats (concrete admissible evidence) of them saying to discriminate against people or its just slander. If you slander or libel them without proof, you will get sued and you will lose. It will also damage your reputation and future career prospects. Just because your salaries are lower doesn't mean there is discrimination; the other people could have negotiated better or negotiated at all. There can be other more innocent things as well such as buddies of the founders getting paid more not because they are men but because they are friends. There are a lot of scenarios at play here, and if they are discriminatory I hope you the best to win the case. Nobody deserves to be discriminated against.

That's the trickiest part of this -- I don't have direct access to payroll / hard evidence. It doesn't look like a negotiation gap, unfortunately -- it looks like it's more on the company's end. I have enough equity that I want the company to succeed -- I also know we're losing top women because of it.

I think ultimately than it would be best to move on, tell the cofounders what you suspect is happening and let them know they are losing top talent because of it. Its really unfortunate that you have to do that in 2014, but it might be the first time that you encounter illegal things being done to the detriment of employees or customers but it won't be the last. The best thing to do for you is to leave, and not worry about. The last you want is for them to tell their network that you are slandering them or you are a "bad employee". Its unfortunate that they are probably the kind of people that would also try to ruin your career. It sucks, but there isn't much you can do/should do without hard evidence.

> There can be other more innocent things as well such as buddies of the founders getting paid more not because they are men but because they are friends.

That is far from innocent.

Oh its more innocent than discrimination. Is it stupid business practices? Sure. Is it illegal? Its not. Im not suggesting people should do it, you should pay an employee what they are worth the business, but ultimately things that are legal and stupid business decisions are more innocent than blatant discrimination.

Yes, this is the kind of thing that it is highly appropriate to report; on of the biggest difficulties in enforcing anti-discrimination laws is lots of people see it, by no one wants to be the one to report it.

If you're quitting - I don't really see the point of reporting anything. I would however, make sure that your current co-workers that are being discriminated against know it's happening (if it's happening). You may consider the fact that there may not be any discrimination going on at all...can you prove that some employees are making less than their male counterparts based solely on sex and not actual merit, contract negotiation, or earned bonuses? (I know I have been in more than one situation where I was making more not because I'm male - but simply because I asked for more)

Looking the other way is exactly what perpetuates this kind of behavior. Everyone wants to assume there is something else going on when it comes to discrimination. If that's the case the people in charge should have no problem explaining why they are paying men more than women.

I'm not suggesting she look the other way, by any means. Looking at is as a "guilty until proven innocent" situation is, in my opinion, not the way to go. Making discrimination accusations is serious business...you better be DAMN sure that you can back up your claim. Also, if she's quitting - the people who are staying should be the ones to make the complaint...you know, the ones who are actually affected by the "discrimination".

please reach out to me--sam@ycombinator

Hey, Sam, from your blog posts I have the impression you take this issue seriously. Please take this as a friendly suggestion.

Anyway, if I were the OP I'd be worried that YC might be more concerned with PR damage control than justice for a handful of low-level employees. For some companies, that has meant discrediting the complainant and building a paper trail against them. (EDIT: I'm not referring to any YC company, just companies in general.)

Are there any guarantees you can offer for whistleblowers?

obviously we'll keep their identity confidential.

if we were concerned about PR damage, we'd handle this a very different way. just want to help if possible. you should see some of the flames we send our portfolio companies when they do something wrong :)

To make sure, you'd need to find out the previous salaries as well as the current salaries. Maybe the disparity was already present in the salaries from previous jobs.

The problem with startups is that the sample rate is too low to draw statistically significant conclusions. For larger companies, it's easier to detect trends of discrimination.

That being said, if it was me, and if you had already decided to quit, I would first send a formal email to all the founders, co-founders, HR and hiring managers, explaining your suspicion as politely and fairly as possible, and asking for an explanation. It still won't end well (which is ok, you are quitting anyway), but at least you give the other side a chance to either explain or rectify the situation.

"Previous job salary" has (or should have) little to no bearing on "current job salary" regardless of gender. In fact, there is only a relationship as long as a candidate employee allows it.

It is not at all the business of a potential new employer what their potential new employees' current salaries are. The only reason for an employer to ask for such information is to reduce the compensation offer for a new employee.

Just because you don't think it should matter, doesn't mean nobody else thinks it matters. At the very least, it matters when trying to recruit somebody away from an existing job, doesn't it? If you want to hire someone, and he's getting X salary, you're generally going to have to offer more than X.

Yes, I understand that others think it matters; I never implied otherwise. Aside from that, it matters not one bit what "X" is, except in the circumstance where an employer wishes to gauge whether he can offer less than he's prepared to.

Every rational human being at all times should be gauging whether they can get more for less. You're imagining sinister motives where there's no need for them. If your second best offer is, let's say 75k, why would the hiring manager offer you 100k when he could get you for 85 and you'd be happy? Just because "he's prepared to" pay 100? I'm "prepared to" pay $4 a gallon for gas, but I'm not going to offer it if the gas station will take $3.

I never described the motivation as being "sinister." I simply described the situation as it is, which you apparently are in agreement with, but for some reason believe I am attaching negative connotations to.

What are they "discriminating" on? If it's not race, sex, or some other protected category, then what's the problem? The salaries may be based on something that you just don't feel is important, but the hiring managers do. Or the offers might have been based on what the hires were earning elsewhere or what competitive offers they had.

EDIT: OK, I now see you're alleging sex discrimination. Would've been easier if you'd just said that directly. So, the question is, what makes you so sure? If you think your work is worth just as much as your co-worker, why not ask for a raise?

I have worked places with salaries that were public knowledge and non-negotiable, and places where salaries were hidden and varied wildly. My mentor recommends finding out the compensation of those you work with, and use that when you negotiate for a raise. It also sounds like the HR person is the one with the real knowledge here, and they are the one in the best position to report this if they are willing.

Whatever you do just make sure you are not sabotaging something under under false notion. Along with your career there are other stakes but do it if you are completely assured.

Hey, I'm one of the editors of Valleywag. I had a question about your post, if you have a few minutes: nitasha@gawker.com

Labor Board. Report it.

Is the person you are trying to negotiate with non-western by any chance? Bringing in the costs to the discussion is quite a common negotiation tactic for some cultures. I've seen Indians, Arabs and a few other Middle Eastern cultures doing that.

This seems like a tactic that would be completely ineffective - it has nothing to do with salary. High-cost employees are hired because they're valuable, not cheap. If someone asked about my personal finances, I would simply say:

"I ask for 95,000$ because I'll easily provide that value to your company. Pay has nothing to do with my personal finances - it's how much my work is worth. Are you looking to hire someone valuable? Because that's what I bring to the table."

I kept trying to avoid adding "If you want cheap, go hire some college interns and let me know so I can go short on your stock."

Yes, it wouldn't work with western cultures. Things like rent of the shop, mouths to feed, etc get used a lot in bazaars. I reckon it's a form of appeal to fairness.

I've always understood it as part of an act, a way to say 'lower the price or I walk' without causing offense. An equivalent response would be 'I would love to give you this deal, but my wife would divorce me for giving such a low price'.

You do realize that this thread is about discrimination, right?

I am from a Middle Eastern country originally and was trying to help out by making sure that things are not getting lost in translation.

You're missing my point. You are using your personal experience to paint huge populations of people ("Indians, Arabs and a few other Middle Eastern cultures") with a very broad (and probably inaccurate) brush. It's speculative at best, offensive stereotyping at worst.

Being one of them, I believe I have enough anecdotes that I can call them data.

And you have enough data, from your personal experience, to know that these negotiation tactics are strongly correlated with ethnicity/race and not something else? This is exactly what discrimination is and how stereotypes form.

"Discrimination" means the use of the brain to tell one thing from another. There is nothing morally wrong with using this power. I think hcho is plainly trying to offer the benefit of his knowledge here. The morally problematic "discrimination" is that which systematically give different treatment in such a way that innocent people are being shut out of opportunities. It is not wrong to say that Culture X is like Y, what's wrong is to then say you'll automatically disqualify individuals of Culture X for opportunity Z (C?)

EDIT: By the way, it's pretty interesting that your comment seems to justify differential treatment if based on that particularly modern folly called "statistical correlation". Are you saying that discriminating against Arabs or women, for example, is only wrong because the stereotypes are false? For that statement is absurd. There are stereotypes because certain things are true, on average, about those groups. Averages are not individual people. Prejudice is a moral problem, not a statistical error.

I don't think that "being one" (and don't get me started on how someone can consider themselves as part of a group labeled as "Indians, Arabs and a few other Middle Eastern cultures") gives someone enough information to make sweeping statements about whole groups of people. Even if you're right 60% of the time (good enough for your typical stereotype), you're wrong 40% of the time and that's important.

Does me being a male give me enough data points to make generalizations about men? I'm married and I know quite a few women, should I offer my viewpoints on them as useful information?

Anyway, it's all probably a moot point. As I understand, the OP mentioned that the negotiators were discussing the costs of the female applicant (e.g. student loans, etc.) while I think hcho was describing the negotiator describing their own costs (e.g. I can't pay you more because my costs are too high).

> Even if you're right 60% of the time (good enough for your typical stereotype), you're wrong 40% of the time and that's important.

This disagrees with your previous comment, where you suggested that stereotyping would be okay if there was a statistical correlation.

Cultures as I stated in my initial post. British publicans get baffled when you tip them, Arabic businessmen bring costs to negotiations, Americans are good at service...All cultural.

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