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Is it ethical to use internal pay data found by accident?

Q. I've accidentally come into possession of a confidential printout of my fellow employees' pay rates. After reviewing it, I've come to the opinion I am being well underpaid. In the near future I am up for review, which always is nothing more than a formality for a decision already made. What are the possible legal ramifications of possessing this information? How, if at all, may I ethically use this information to my advantage?

A. Above all, be very careful.

Since you found the information, I would not use it when discussing your salary with your manager nor your HR department. Unless your coworkers tell you what they are making, don't talk about the information you came across. In fact, some companies have policies against employees divulging their salaries to each other. If you decide to use the information, first find out your company's policy on employees exchanging information.

Before you confront your manager with any data regarding your compensation, find out what experience and educational backgrounds your coworkers have relative to yours. Your peers could have additional experience that you are not aware of. But if your experience and educational background are similar to those of your peers, then I would talk to your manager if I were you.

It may difficult, but ask your manager about your performance relative to your peers. If your performance is average, you can expect to make less money. But take the question a bit further and ask your manager what you'll have to do to get a raise, or to receive a competitive salary relative to your coworkers.

Your manager may feel compelled to offer you reasons why your salary does not meet your expectations. If your manager is reluctant to explain any differences in salary, ask your HR department whether it is possible for a coworker in the same job to be paid more than you. You may also want to know how your company evaluates its jobs.

If you feel you’re getting the runaround from the HR department, ask what you will have to do to get a raise and what kinds of resources are available to help you improve your skills.

Good luck.