A merger and a lower grade

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Q: My husband is being treated poorly by his company.  His company merged with another company, and now he has been told that his job has been re-evaluated and is now at a lower grade.  We are guessing but we think this is a demotion, and we worry that they may cut his pay.  This seems outlandish to me, and several other family members.  Please let us know how we should handle.

A: In most situations, an employer can make changes to an employee’s salary, grade level, title and almost anything else.  There are some exceptions though.  If your husband has a contract in place, or if he is a member of a union, there may be some protection against these changes.  Additionally, any compensation change must still comply with federal and state laws like the minimum wage law in Massachusetts.  As of January of 2023, the minimum wage in Massachusetts, for most employees, was increased to $15.00 per hour.

There may be some instances where the change to a lower grade group and/or reduced salary could potentially raise some legal flags.  For example, if the reduction in salary group and wages, followed a situation where he voiced a complaint or concern.  This could potentially be perceived as retaliation and this may be illegal.  Or if this downgrade in his salary group and wages followed a leave of absence, illness or disability, there may be some legal action worth exploring.   There are some additional questions that may help us better analyze this specific situation:

  • Was your husband an isolated example or did this downgrade happen to an entire group of employees?
  • As part of the merger, was there a review of compensation and/or benefits practices at his/her company?
  • Did his job functions change recently?

Many companies evaluate their compensation and benefits programs on a regular basis.  When a company merges with another company, it is a very common practice to review all practices and policies, which impact employees.  All moves to a different grade (either lower or higher) does not always accompany a change in compensation.  The goal is often to ensure that employees are treated consistently across the newly consolidated company.  There also may be opportunities for the new company to critically evaluate staffing.  If your former company had six accountants, and the other company had six accountants, can the accounting work be accomplished by ten accountants?

Many companies will make changes to maintain a competitive position, reduce costs or to better reflect local and national trends.  I am unsure as to why your husband’s employer would be changing his salary group but there could be many reasons.  Many of these reasons could be perfectly legal.  In Massachusetts, an employer in most situations can amend, revise or change most employment conditions as long as they continue to comply with state and federal laws.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Boston.com Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.