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updated: 11/4/2012 7:20 AM

Work advice: When should a worker drop the d-bomb?

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Q: My company has a policy that, after so many years, your salary should be at midlevel on its salary charts. I'm now past that point. I've earned excellent reviews, have strong knowledge in my field and am continuing my education. I have brought this policy up during my appraisal, only to be told I am not eligible for a raise beyond that allotted, with no explanations. Recently it came to light that out of all of us who do this job, only the male worker in the group (with the same amount of time in the company as I have but less education) makes the midlevel salary rate. Appraisals are coming around again. Do I ask for another increase to bring my salary in line with the company policy? Or is it time to pursue another course of action?

A: Last week, we discussed how to ask for a raise without dragging higher-paid co-workers into the discussion. However, your situation as described has a whiff of gender bias about it. Some dragging may be in order.

But before you cry "Title VII!" and let slip the dogs of law, employment attorney Sharon Snyder of the Washington law firm Ober Kaler recommends giving your employer a chance to "do the right thing, for the right reason."

Snyder notes that your company's policy of tying salary to time served probably lacks the force of law. But it's a good place to start. If you're told again that you're "not eligible," press for explicit reasons why the policy doesn't apply to you.

If that tack gets you nowhere, start plugging your stellar record and value to the company, including your additional education and training.

No soap? Time to reveal what you know about your male co-worker's pay. Spell out how the disparity in your salaries inaccurately reflects your respective qualifications and contributions, and that you should be making at least as much as your co-worker, given your equal time served.

But, Snyder warns, don't mention discrimination yet. Just see what the boss says. If you get the raise, well done. If you're told there isn't enough money, ask for a timeline of when you can expect more; maybe you can get a raise in increments over the year. If you're told your performance falls short, discuss ways to improve it.

If none of the answers passes a sniff test, or if you find yourself targeted in some way afterward, it may indeed be time to "pursue another course of action," such as talking to your human resources department and getting your lawyer on. You'd be wise to update your resume, too. Dropping the d-bomb is a game-changer.

Be warned: Fighting discrimination can take a toll on your finances, sanity and reputation. But -- as generations of institutionally underpaid victims can attest -- the cause can be worth the cost.

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