Can You Be Terminated for Asking for a Raise at Work?

Aug 23 2023

Amanda DeMatteis: Hi, Josh.

Josh Goodbaum: Hi, Amanda. What are we talking about today?

DeMatteis: We are talking about a person at work who drums up the courage to go to their boss and say, “Hey, I really think I deserve a raise.” Let’s —for the purposes of today’s video— say that it’s a woman who goes to her boss, asks for a raise, and shortly thereafter, she gets terminated. She comes to you, and she says, “Hey, what do I do? This has got to be retaliation. There’s got to be something here.” What do you tell that person?

Goodbaum: I tell her, “Maybe. Let’s talk about it some more.”

First question I’d want to ask is, “How did you ask for the raise, and why did you ask for the raise? Do you perceive, for example, that there’s a man who’s comparably situated to you who earns more money than you do? So you went, and you said, ‘Hey, I think I should be paid the same amount as that guy in the next cubicle to me.’ If so, you’ve engaged in protected conduct. Because you haven’t just asked for a raise. You’ve also complained about sex discrimination or a violation of the Equal Pay Act.”

I also would want to know: “Has anybody else asked for a raise? Maybe you got the idea from a male colleague who asked for a raise and was successful. Then you asked and you got fired.” That would be sex discrimination.

It’s widely accepted in society that women are paid less, at least in part, because they ask less for raises. There is some data to support that. But there is other data that suggests women actually ask just as often; they just don’t get. According to two studies I reviewed, women who asked for a raise obtained a raise of 5 to 8% less than the men who asked. Now, that might seem like a small difference. But over the course of a career, that can really add up. So it’s important — asking for a raise and getting a raise is a real sex equality issue. And that’s something that we need to evaluate on that basis.

If the woman says to me, “No, I don’t know anybody who’s paid more than me. I didn’t ask with reference to a man. I don’t know any man who’s asked for a raise and gotten it,” and there aren’t any other issues of discrimination or retaliation, I would say to her, “If you’re an at-will employee, I think this is just part of what goes with at-will employment.”

Remember that at-will employment is the condition that allows for you to be terminated at any time for any reason or no reason at all, so long as it’s not an unlawful one. If your employer terminates everybody who asks for a raise, regardless of who asks, there’s nothing illegal about that.

So let’s explore it together, and see if there might be an angle. But I can’t guarantee that there is. That’s why we have the conversation.

DeMatteis: Always worth talking to an employment lawyer about these things because, as we are constantly saying, they’re just so fact-specific. Thank you so much for that information. We appreciate you watching and we’ll see you next time.

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josh goodbaum speaking on being terminated for asking for a raise

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