One of the unwritten rules in any workplace is not to compare salaries.
It can create team disharmony, jealousy and a nightmare for bosses.
But it turns out that bit of comparison might be a good thing.
Because workers comparing their pay-packets is exactly how the issue of Woolworths underpaying workers by $300 million came to light.
Mind you, it has quickly become a nightmare for Australia’s largest employer, with full-page newspaper apologies and a commitment to repay every cent.
For some time, store managers inside a Woolworths supermarket suspected their shop-floor workers on an enterprise bargaining agreement were being paid more than they were.
A bit of a chat in the tea-room – and a quick comparison of wages among the managers and the floor workers – confirmed the issues and it went from there.
Woolworths is now going back nine years to when its modern awards were introduced to work out the full extent of the under-payment.
It’s the latest in a string of companies, including Qantas, the ABC, Wesfarmers, Michael Hill Jewellers and SuperCheap Auto that have admitted underpaying staff.
The timing, you suspect, is not only new penalties that are likely after a review of wages underpayment by Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter.
Some submissions to this review call for not just harsher financial penalties, but jail-time for bosses who deliberately underpay their workers.
Whether it becomes a crime to underpay remains to be seen, but the nation’s employers are on-notice.
That’s why more are coming forward now to admit the underpayments.
The other reason so many cases are coming forward now would be the old water-cooler chats – people comparing wages and seeing if there is fairness.
Of course this is only useful if they are working on an award wage or on an identical enterprise bargaining agreement.
Anybody who works on a contract, or a negotiated salary, is pretty much on their own (much as you might want to know what the person next to you is getting paid).
The other issue about wage underpayment is whether the act is deliberate, or a stuff-up.
It is clear that most bosses want to pay their workers the right amount – hence they commonly lean towards stuff-up.
You will commonly hear that the many awards in Australia make it difficult to work out exactly what a person should be paid.
So when the Fair Work Ombudsman comes knocking, there can be mistakes that have been made.
But as somebody who rang me on my radio program last night said: “How many times do you hear of companies overpaying people?”
Not often, it’s true, though one fellow called me and claimed to have been overpaid by the Commonwealth Bank on at least six occasions, and on four of those times he got to keep the money. I’m a little sceptical about this … but just a little.
Now go back five years when the wages scandal kicked off with revelations that 7-Eleven franchisees had exploited and underpaid migrant students working in their stores.
There were more than 600 7-Eleven stores in Australia and the under-payment was rife.
Even now, franchisees are being fined by the Fair Work Ombudsman for cases that keep coming up.
The bottom line of this case was that franchisees would only be able to make money from their business by exploiting the workers.
As these businesses were on-sold, so was the knowledge about how to exploit the workers.
There was no intervention from the franchisor – 7-Eleven’s head office – to understand or prevent the practice.
Now come to the latest cases of underpayment.
Though the companies scream “stuff-up”, not conspiracy, it does make you wonder whether head office truly understands what is happening in their operations.
What happens if the head-office has honourable intentions to pay all workers fairly, but line managers inside stores or warehouses are keen to hit financial or performance targets and deliberately take some short-cuts?
Clearly if such a situation occurred, the reputational damage on the whole company and brand would be affected – so it is a matter for head-office to understand what is happening on the shop-floor to make certain such things do not happen.
And their job, clearly, is made easier by workers talking about and comparing their wages then questioning any anomalies.
Turns out, it might be the “team” thing to do, after all.