You want to know how much a co-worker makes, and you come right out and ask them. They tell you, but they warn you to keep it quiet because the company has a policy saying you can never discuss such things with your co-workers. If you get caught, you’ll get fired.
This strikes you as rather problematic on a number of levels. For one thing, why are they keeping it a secret? What are they trying to hide? It makes you question their motivation.
On top of that, you can’t imagine that you could get fired for talking about pay rates with your co-workers. Could you? That just doesn’t sound like the type of freedom you’ve come to expect in the United States.
You’re right. It is generally illegal for companies to ban these conversations or to fire workers who talk about pay with other workers. You have a right to have those conversations. While you can’t force someone else to tell you how much they earn, you can ask without fear of being fired.
Why would companies want to keep it a secret? It may be so that they can avoid allegations of discrimination. For instance, if a man and a woman do the same job and have the same education and experience, but the man makes more money, is that gender-based discrimination? The same could be said for varying pay based on age, race, religion and many other such factors.
If you do get fired for talking about pay, or if your company has such a policy on the books, you need to know all of your legal options.