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Pay disparity: Hygienist is concerned after helping former classmate find a job

Feb. 21, 2017
Dianne Watterson, RDH, advises a dental hygienist who is concerned about fair play after helping former classmate find a job.

By Dianne Glasscoe Watterson, RDH, BS, MBA

Dear Dianne,

I've been at my hygiene job for two years. I know my employer values me as he tells me he does, and my coworkers tell me that he values me, also. I currently make $37 per hour. A close friend of mine with whom I graduated hygiene school 15 years ago was having a difficult time at her job and was recently terminated. I felt bad for her, so when I was out of town recently I convinced my office to let her work temporarily in my place. She worked in my office for two days. My office liked her and she enjoyed working there. But then I found out she was paid $43 per hour for her temp services. I helped out a friend with employment, and then learned I work for far less pay than she did when we both have the same number of years of experience. This is very humiliating. My office is undergoing significant change. We are bringing in another dentist and expanding the office hours soon. They're thinking about hiring my friend part-time. My question is this: Do I approach my employer and ask for the same amount of money as my friend will be making? What is the best way to handle this? What do you think I should do? Any advice would be helpful. There are many great benefits in this office. For example, my employer has allowed me to continue working two days of my choosing while everyone else is employed full-time. I have an assistant, and I've never had one before, and she makes my work flow much more smoothly. The dentist supports the hygienists in our treatment choices for patients, and he allows us to choose our instruments and anything we need to do the work. I receive all my dentistry for free, and I'm able to clean my family's teeth when I want to without having to pay for it (even though I offer). My employer allows me to take home the prescription fluoride toothpastes that my kids use without having to pay for it (even though I offer).

Feeling Cheated, RDH

Dear Feeling Cheated,

First off, let me say that I can identify with your situation. You were trying to help your friend, but then you found out she received a significantly higher wage than you. It reminds me of the saying, "No good deed goes unpunished."

I expect your boss was not entirely happy paying an additional $6 per hour, but doing that was better than canceling the days and losing all that production. He was acting on a credible recommendation from you that your friend would do the job well. Furthermore, I can almost guarantee that your friend will not be paid that wage if she is hired on a permanent basis.

Actually, it is customary for temporary employees to make higher wages than the standard amount. When my children were small, I did a lot of temp work. I always asked for more than the going rate, mainly because it's hard to work in unfamiliar places, I got no fringe benefits, and I gave up my day to help them. That's worth something. Generally, temps make more.

I don't know how you found out about your friend's pay, but your boss was naïve if he thought you would not find out. It is worth noting that some employers have clauses in their employee manuals that state that discussions about pay among employees are discouraged or even prohibited. It is illegal for employers to prohibit pay discussions among employees. In fact, in April 2014, President Obama issued an Executive Order that explicitly states that employers may not prohibit employees from discussing compensation.1

However, it is illegal for people who administer payroll to discuss with employees or coworkers what others are being paid. For example, if it was a business assistant who tipped you off about the pay disparity between you and your friend, this business assistant is disclosing information that he/she is not authorized to discuss. If that is the case, your boss would be justified in terminating him/her.

It is likely that you feel a sense of betrayal from your boss and even your friend. I'm sure I'd feel the same way if I were in your shoes.

However, I'd like to take this opportunity to mention something else here. It's called envy. You agreed to a wage of $37 and that was fine until you found out your friend was paid more. Now discontent prevails, and the water is poisoned. Someone poisoned the work environment and now you feel humiliated. But you've done nothing wrong. You've just gone to work and done the best you can every day. Also, you were merely trying to help your friend. If you "allow" envy to take root in your heart, you've drunk the poison. I don't know where you're located, but to some hygienists, $37 per hour is good pay.

One of my early positions was in an office where I never received a raise unless I asked for it. It was the most humiliating thing I've ever done, and I vowed that I would never do it again, and I never have. I've always felt if my boss doesn't think enough of me and my work to give me a raise at appropriate times, I'd be better off somewhere else.

I expect some people will not agree with this, but my advice to you is to be patient. See what happens here. If your boss is worth his salt, he will exercise fairness, and you won't have to ask for it. Just take the high road. If you let this become a highly emotional issue and make angry demands on your boss, it could backfire on you. From your question, I know you value your job because you have outlined many positive aspects about your office. The practice is undergoing change right now, so let things settle down and see what happens. There will be plenty of time later to engage in a pay discussion should that become necessary.

Please let me know how this turns out. I do feel for you, but I believe you will feel better taking the high road and giving this a little time. While money IS important, happiness in the workplace is rarely, if ever, dependent on money.

All the best,



1. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/04/08/executive-order-non-retaliation-disclosure-compensation-information

DIANNE GLASSCOE WATTERSON, RDH, BS, MBA, is an award-winning speaker, author, and consultant. She has published hundreds of articles, numerous textbook chapters, an instructional video on instrument sharpening, and two books. For information about upcoming speaking engagements or products, visit her website at www.wattersonspeaks.com. Dianne may be contacted at (336)472-3515 or by email [email protected].