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Why We Should Talk About Money at Work

God bless america

We are told from a young age to never, ever speak about money. Don’t ask anybody how much they make, or how much they paid for their car, or how much they pay in rent for that beautiful apartment. It is tacky, it is rude, it’s not something that nice people do. I am not one of those nice people. Talking about the cost of things, for me, is a necessity. If I got something for cheap, and someone asks me about it, I am more than willing to tell them how much I paid, because I live in New York, and not a whole lot about this place is very cheap. I try to employ this kind of transparency in my day-to-day, because I think that breaking down the barriers that we create when it comes to finances is important.

The one place I have always wanted to talk about money openly, but have never felt comfortable until very recently, is the office. The curiosity about what others make is natural. If you’re doing the same kind of work as someone else, the assumption is that you’re being compensated equally, but the fact that there is a well-documented pay gap says otherwise. Talking about money in the workplace is the last taboo.You can eat lunch in the conference room together and make jokes about how nobody can afford anything, because you’re all getting paid in handfuls of spare change and “experience,” but that conversation is just posturing without real, hard evidence behind it.

The arguments against pay transparency are not even vocalized, but merely assumed. We do not ask what others are making because it is not polite, and besides, who’s going to tell you, anyway? Jonathan Timm, a writer at the Atlantic, recently shared his story about pay transparency. When attempting to negotiate his salary at a law firm, he was gently rebuffed by the HR woman. He writes:

The HR manager tried to convince me that the offer was competitive. She told me that she couldn’t offer more because it would be unfair to other paralegals. She said that if we did not agree to a salary that day, then she would have to suspend me because I would be working past the allowed temp phase. I insisted that she look into a higher offer and she agreed that we could meet again later. Before I left, she had something to add.

“Make sure you don’t talk about your salary with anyone,” she said sweetly, as if she was giving advice to her own son. “It causes conflict and people can be let go for doing it.”

There are a variety of factors that go into determining an appropriate salary.
Are you doing work that is specialized? Do you have a degree that you are still paying for, in a field you chose specifically for its ability to give you a leg up on the competition? Do you have special skills and experience that would make somebody want to throw you an extra five to 10 thousand dollars a year because they can’t find it anywhere else? If any of these things apply to you, then of course you want to know how much money you’re making in comparison to others because you want to be treated fairly.

Speculating about why Jason in marketing makes $10K more a year than Alicia, when she does the same job, but better, is an effective way to kill time when you’re waiting your turn at the microwave, or printing out something longer than five pages. It’s It’s also totally and completely legal, despite what your office manager tells you.

Employers fear transparency in the office because it encourages dissent. Stir the masses from their stupor and you have a revolution on your hands. People deserve to know how their pay stacks up to the others, because it discourages complacency, encourages ambition and, you know, motivates people to either work harder or get out. I worked for a company once that had a CEO problem, shuffling through three in as many years before I got laid off. One night, at a work function, she pulled me aside and whispered that one day one of the photo editors had been tasked with balancing a spreadsheet that consisted of every employee at the company and their salaries—a precursor to the layoffs that came soon after. This was transparency at its most negligent, but it was eye opening, to say the least. If the office manager at this job was having a particularly off day, we could get to talking, and she’d let me know just how much others were making in comparison to myself, via a purposeful eyebrow raise in response to rattled-off numbers.

At first, I felt terrible. I was aware of the amount of work I was doing, and to know that I was being under compensated didn’t feel good. But, the upshot is that this information led to the complacent bubble being burst. I started looking for other work. I started to gain an understanding of what my worth was to a company. When I got laid off, I was upset, but it lit a fire under my ass to start looking for things that would pay me correctly. Things like Glassdoor.com and Salary.com exist to fill the void that’s left at most workplaces by a lack of pay transparency. Use them to you advantage.

It may seem funny, at first, to ask a coworker how much they make, but the fact of the matter is, your employer probably isn’t going to tell you. If you want to know if you’re being compensated fairly, speak to the people that sit next to you every day, in the line at Chipotle on your lunch break, or in the elevator as you leave work. Ask colleagues whom you trust and can be discreet about the conversations. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be for future pay negotiations.


Megan Reynolds lives in New York.


7 Comments / Post A Comment

Theestablishment (#7,469)

I don’t know if this was supposed to be tongue in cheek but it’s honestly the worst advice I’ve ever read.

jalmondale (#6,721)

@Theestablishment Care to elaborate? I’ve done this at a couple different jobs, and it’s information I’ve been glad to have every time. One place, I was making less than a coworker, but not by a lot and for totally understandable reasons. Another place, I was making less than someone in the exact same job, who had started at about the same time as I did. I got to find out 2 things: (1) HR/recruiting lied through their teeth about what the salary bands are and (2) it doesn’t matter if you don’t want to work there, or if the offer isn’t competitive, get an offer from another company for negotiation leverage. These are extremely useful facts for negotiating raises.

Theestablishment (#7,469)

@jalmondale there’s simply way too much reputational downside for very little benefit. Unless you’re very careful about limiting questions to very close friends, I guarantee that making this a habit will turn you into the creepy office gossip that nobody wants to work or associate with (which will have very real impacts on your future with that company).

The most important thing anybody needs to consider when thinking about compensation is “are the struggles/effort/pain I expend for this job worth what I receive in terms of money, satisfaction, quality of life or other intangibles?” If the answer to that is yes, then nothing else is really worth sweating.

Don’t worry so much about keeping up with the joneses. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t let yourself be abused or taken advantage of, but focus on yourself and making sure that you’re happy with what you’re getting for what you put out on an absolute basis. Forget about everything else.

As my user name implies, I have a long history in the corporate world and have gotten to a fairly high level. I’ve seen people drive themselves crazy with this and turn it into a repeating cycle. 1.) employee finds out what another employee makes and thinks the treatment is unfair. 2.) employee approaches manager who provides reasonable justification for why there are compensation differences. 3.) employee does not believe with manager’s answer, no matter how valid. 4.) employee becomes frustrated and stops performing or just generally stops contributing to the overall work environment 5.) employee’s performance or attitude drives a sub par rating, which pretty much serves to widen the salary gap even more. 6.) employee leaves company and starts the cycle anew at a different employer. The process sometimes shortcuts and moves from step 3 directly to 6 but the end result is generally the same.

Said simply. It’s a very dangerous slope to go down. In my experience, the people who think it their business to know what other people are making are unlikely to ever reach a point in their careers where they make enough to truly not have to think about it.

At the very least, I’d caveat trying to directly compare salary figures unless you’re 100% sure that you know all of facts that would drive any differences (e.g., technical qualifications, complexity of workload, time with company, etc.). And please make absolutely sure that you’re being honest with yourself about your own contributions and accomplishments before waving the unfair flag.

A much less anti-social and safe recommendation is to just give a recruiter a call every couple of years (if they serve your industry). They’ll usually be able to give you a good idea of your market value and if you should be making more. You’ll get the same benefit through less creepy means.

jennknee (#3,899)

I work for government. It’s nice in a way, because we kinda know how much everyone makes (give or take some differentials). It only sucks because I know I do much more complicated work than others and get paid the exact same amount (but the reverse is also true, others work much harder than I do).

callmeprufrock (#5,158)

@jennknee I’m in finance, and it’s the same here. You know everybody’s base salary based on what their title is, roughly, but then bonuses are where better workers are (ideally) better compensated. It is super duper not okay to discuss bonuses with coworkers–management will give a really stern talking-to if they catch anyone doing that.

dude (#5,879)

@jennknee +1 for government. Though there are different incentive awards that people get and I won’t discuss mine with others (recently got a 40-hour time off award, i.e., a free extra week of vacation!).

guenna77 (#856)

i would love to do this in theory. but my fear is other people being shitty about their salary and that translating into a shitty work environment. people at my office wouldn’t be mad at their boss – they’d be mad at the co-worker who makes more. and they aren’t the type of people to look for a new job if they are unhappy. they’re company lifers who would rather be passive aggressive and sabotage someone else’s job than leave.

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