Do you have a team member coming to you frustrated about their salary, or some other aspect of their work that you can’t do anything about? The frustration makes sense, but your hands are tied, at least for the immediate. What do you do? 

Let’s begin with what not to do, then we’ll get into what you can do to help the situation and keep your team members focused on doing good work.   

What Not To Say When Employees Complain About Pay 

When they come to you with complaints about their pay, don’t say (real examples) 

“I know inflation was higher than the raise you received, but if you just avoid buying the things that cost more money right now, then it shouldn’t affect you.” 


“I know your salary is well below the people you lead, but if we increase your salary, you’ll be the second highest paid person on the team, with the least experience.” 

Four-Step Process For Dealing With Salary Complaints 

Instead, consider this simple 4-step process— 

  1. Validate their experience—it felt like a demotion. And, given the recent financial success of the company and the persons strong performance review, this raise didn’t make sense.
  2. Be honest. If you don’t know why the situation is as it is, say so.
  3. Communicate your intentions. Are you going to bring this issue up at the next executive meeting? Say so. If you’re not going to do anything, say so, and explain why.
  4. Follow up. Let them know when you’ll have time to follow up on their important issue. Then, follow up. This lets them know that you’re trustworthy and that you care.

Loyalty-Building Responses To Salary Complaints 

Here’s an example of what the managers from the above comments could have said that would have increased enthusiasm, rather than diminishing trust and lowering productivity— 

It makes sense why you’re frustrated. I’m not sure why our business unit miscalculated inflation when preparing our budgets. I will look into this and get back to you next Wednesday. 


Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I agree—we need to get your paid up to par with your title. I’m not sure how we’re going to do this yet because of budget constraints. Can you give me two weeks to do with digging? 

What To Say When They Complain About Salary 

Here are some additional ideas of what to say if your team comes to you with complaints about their salary—     

Help me understand what’s frustrating for you? 

It makes sense that you’re frustrated. I would be frustrated too. 

You are a valuable member of this team, and we’re going to find a way to correct this. 

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. 

Due to budgetary constraints, I’m not yet sure how we’re going to correct this, but we will. 

Do you mind giving me a couple of weeks to do some research? Let’s circle back on July 13th. 

It makes sense that it feels like a demotion, and that sucks. That is not my intention… the budget is tighter than I expected. Let me see what we can do to correct this. 

The key phrases here are, 

  • We are in this together.
  • You make sense.
  • This isn’t ideal.
  • I value your contribution.

“Pay isn’t a carrot we need to dangle to motivate people.  It is a symbol of how much we value them,” – Adam Grant 

Salary Is Often Tied To Sense Of Worth 

When it comes to pay, it’s critical to remember that many people tie their salary to their sense of worth. Pay is also strongly connected with physical and psychological safety, and when leaders belittle, ignore, or try to justify pay discrepancies, they diminish trust, decreasing the ability to focus on doing the work. 

When your brain is telling you that this situation (job, leader, company) is not safe, it’s impossible to focus on their doing great work. If you want the best out of the people on your team, avoid justifying unfair pay, and instead, validate and create a plan to correct the situation. 

Here’s to your greatness,  

Misti Burmeister 

Misti Burmeister helps leaders and their team have conversations they keep avoiding but need to have. For nearly 20 years, she has facilitated communication that results in trust, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Make sure your communication is coming across the way you intend, visit