No matter how far we’ve come in terms of work-life transparency, talking about your salary remains one of those taboo topics that even the closest of colleagues rarely discuss. But we know it’s on your mind.
In JUST Capital’s annual survey — which asks the American public what they care about most when it comes to business practices — worker pay and well-being are consistently Americans top concern. Specifically, Americans want companies to:
- Pay workers a fair wage based on job level, qualifications, and experience.
- Pay workers a living wage that covers the local costs of basic needs.
- Provide workers with a good benefits package and support work-life balance.
- Provide a diverse and inclusive workplace with equal opportunity and pay without discrimination.
There are certainly resources to help you find out which companies are leading the way on these issues — including our interactive Rankings — but the more detailed data you can collect the better.
So, isn’t it time we drop the secrecy and start treating discussions around pay as the norm?
The answer may depend on who you ask. According to a recent FinanceBuzz survey, millennials are more likely than their generation X counterparts to discuss their pay with various people in their lives, including a co-worker, sibling, or friend. But no matter your age, there’s a solid case for talking about salary and other forms of non-wage compensation.
How Talking About Salary Helps You
Discussing how much you make, whether it’s more or less than your peers, is important to recognizing your value and can go a long way in helping even out pay disparities, says Lauren Hasson, founder of DevelopHer, an equal pay and women’s empowerment platform.
Normalizing these often-taboo topics empowers employees and allows them to advocate for themselves and demand fair wages. Hasson knows this from personal experience.
“Six years ago, a male colleague pulled me aside and privately complained to me about how much he was making,” she recalls. “I was shocked to learn that he was paid exactly what I was, despite my having years of experience on him and training him and managing his work.”
During that discussion, Hasson also learned that her colleague’s initial salary offer was 50% higher than hers was, despite having similar experience and doing the same job. Armed with this data, Hasson decided to negotiate for herself, and within two years, she tripled her salary.
Hasson’s experience is unique and not everyone should expect the same results, but the universal takeaway is that there’s power in sharing. This is especially true when people are negotiating for a new job or a promotion.
“One respected leader in my field told me her exact salary to give me a sense of what the market offers,” says Shanna Hocking, associate vice president of individual giving at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “In turn, I have shared this information with other women I have mentored to help prepare them for salary negotiations.”
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The Case for Companies to Discuss Pay
In a tight labor market, salary transparency helps companies, too. An often-cited study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkley found that workers who were given information about the earnings of their peers were more productive and ended up staying longer at their companies.
“On the employer side of the equation, being transparent about pay is very important,” says Ruben Moreno, a partner at Blue Rock Search Group, an executive search firm. Being viewed as a transparent employer doesn’t cost you anything, but it adds a lot of value, he says.
Our research — the Win-Win of JUST Jobs — backs this up, showing companies that publicly disclose their policies, progress, and targets in areas like gender pay equity tend to perform better financially.
To job candidates, publicizing these policies can be a useful recruiting tool. To employees, transparency sends a message of fairness, because the rulebook is on display.
“There’s minimal downside to taking a direct approach to communicating about salary and other company policies with job candidates, who may later become employees,” Moreno says. “An open and honest approach can evolve into a trusting, committed relationship with employees that ultimately drives retention.”
Some companies take pay disclosure even further with an open salary policy. While the exact policy varies by company, the gist is that everyone knows what everyone is making, no matter your job level.
Social media management platform Buffer made salaries public in 2013 — only after employees agreed to it — and the move paid off: Job applications for openings at the time doubled within one month. The company uses internal surveys to check the popularity of the policy, and employees have responded positively.
How to Start the Conversation
You may not be in a position to change company policy at this time, but you can help normalize talking about pay among your peers. In case you’re concerned, know that you have a legal right to discuss salary at work, thanks to the National Labor Relations Act.
That said, there’s still a negative stigma around the topic of money, and no one wants to be judged for bringing it up, says career coach Melanie L. Denny. “It is seen as intrusive and even rude to ask, ‘how much do you make?’”
That doesn’t mean you need to avoid the topic entirely. There’s too much at stake. Instead, consider these tips:
- Go off-site. Your colleagues are more likely to be open to a money discussion when they’re not worried about who might be listening. “Take a colleague to lunch or wait for happy hour to bring it up,” Denny suggests.
- Find creative ways to talk money — and carefully observe reactions. If you don’t know your coworkers very well, start by asking a less intrusive money-related question, like how much they pay for a fancy gym membership. “See how they respond. Watch their body language,” Denny says. “If they feel uneasy, then maybe this isn’t the best person to compare paychecks with.”
- Make it about you. Instead of asking someone else what they make, consider bringing up your own earnings. You could mention a recent raise you’ve received or even reference something you read about fair wages that got you thinking. Starting the conversation is usually the hardest part, and it may be just the nudge they need to share their own earnings.
The bottom line: Don’t be afraid to discuss money with your friends and coworkers. It could be a powerful and defining moment for everyone involved.
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