Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
When was the last time you talked with colleagues about how much money you earn?
If you’re like most people, your answer is “never.” As a society, we’re incredibly weird about discussing how much we earn. It feels gauche or intrusive to ask other people what they make, and a lot of us feel uncomfortable sharing our own numbers.
Given that, it’s no coincidence that so many people find it difficult to figure out a fair market rate for their work, which leads to anxiety in salary negotiations and leaves people lowballing themselves. Without any real data to rely on, they’re afraid of shooting too high. It also allows people to go on being underpaid for years, often without realizing it, and perpetuates wage gaps by race and gender. If we talked more freely with each other about our salaries, workers wouldn’t be at such a disadvantage when negotiating with employers.
And people desperately want more information about the going rate for their work. This person who wrote to me is pretty typical:
I’ve found salary websites to be really inaccurate. There’s such a wide range of responsibility that can come with any given title, and just too much variation. It’s so frustrating not having any reliable sources of information about salary. For something so important, you’d think we’d have a better system. How are we supposed to find out what a fair pay range is for our work?
In fact, when I recently ran a survey on my website asking people to anonymously share their salaries in a Google form (along with their job titles, industry, and geographic area), 1,000 people responded within the first half-hour and 27,000 people responded in just a few days—with answers flooding in so quickly that at times the spreadsheet kept freezing. Clearly there’s a hunger to exchange salary information.
So why, then, don’t more of us talk openly about what we’re earning? This person summed up the way a lot of people feel about it:
Unless it was someone I was very close with and trusted, I would not share this information. It’s no one’s business but my own. Once you share it, it’s outside your control who that information is passed to. You can ask someone to keep it confidential, but there’s no guarantee that your request will be honored. Maybe the person will use it to try and justify getting a raise—as in, “Ann makes $X and I should too!” I don’t want to be any part of anything like that, nor do I want there to be any hint that I’m on the sidelines, egging it on.
Then on the flip side, what if you’re sharing that information and you find out that your colleague makes more than you do? Unless you feel that person’s skills and talents are truly superior to your own, it’s going to be hard for that to eat away at you. Personally, I’m very satisfied with my salary, and I don’t need to know what anyone else makes. In fact, I’m one of the few IT people in my company who has access to that information for every employee, and I stay the hell away from it because there are just some things that aren’t any of my business and this is one of them.
Even people who believe in transparency in theory can find it hard to put into practice, as this reader reports:
I too believe in salary disclosure and not being taboo and being able to talk about it, but one time I was out with friends and we were talking about salary and they were all open about what they were making. Two of them had been working about 5-6 years more in their chosen line of work then I have in mine, but my salary was $10-15,000 more then all of the people at that table. Part of it is my chosen career path—you make way more being in operations than lower level admin just based on requirements of the job, but man oh man did I feel uncomfortable talking about it after that. I copped out and ended up saying “oh yeah around there” and not giving any number.
Of course, the only parties likely to benefit from this secrecy are employers; it’s to everyone else’s detriment. (No surprise, though, that many employers actively discourage employees from talking with one another about what they earn, even though federal law makes it illegal for employers to prevent nonsupervisory employees from discussing their pay with each other.)
Those who do talk openly about salary generally find it incredibly useful:
I will forever owe a colleague who gave me information on her salary that revealed how much I was underpaid. I brought this information to my boss—without naming her—and just said, look, if this info is true, then I would argue I’m bringing you a lot more value than I’m being paid for, please make it right (couched in nicer language of course).
I got a 25% raise that year.
Here’s an account from someone who chose to share—and is glad they did:
I once offered to share with a coworker what I make. … She was fighting our boss to reclassify her position and give her a raise, but the boss was telling her it wasn’t in the budget. She shared with me what she was making, and I let her know I was making nearly double that. Having that information was the kick she needed to look for other jobs and fight for her worth. She found a lateral transfer and was able to use market analysis for the new role to get a higher compensation. I felt terrible for her, but I’m glad I gave her that information.
Even when people aren’t willing to share hard numbers, they’re often more comfortable talking about ranges:
When I was promoted at a marketing agency from VP to SVP, the pay bump was much lower than I expected (I am a woman). I asked a close friend to tell me his salary range but he was concerned about doing so. However, when I told him my salary, he was shocked. I then said the range I was planning to request and he said it was well within the band. I made my case and got the raise I wanted.
And yet, it’s hard to initiate a conversation about what you earn or, harder still, what the person across from you earns. One way to do it is to say something like, “I have the sense my salary is below-market, and I’m trying to test that with real data. Would you be willing to discuss what we’re each earning, as a way of better understanding how salaries work here?”
These conversations are critical if employees are to have any shot at evening the playing field with employers, getting paid what they’re worth, and shrinking pay disparities by race and gender.