How often do you ask people how much they earn? If you’re like me, that’s a question you’ve been taught to never ask. The common consensus is that questions about a person’s salary are “rude” and therefore off-limits. Divulging your salary can make you feel self-conscious because you’re afraid that people will either pity or envy you, and neither of those are comfortable positions. But what if I told you that we should talk about salary and what we each earn? Discussing money is a good thing and benefits all of us, so let’s talk paychecks.
The Benefactors of Secrecy (It Ain’t You)
Our shame and secrecy surrounding our salaries does benefit some people – namely, the people who control our salaries. Consider it: How would you know whether you’re being underpaid if you don’t know what your co-workers earn? I don’t know where our skittishness surrounding income originates, but there are certainly those with a vested interest in keeping it around.
I’m not trying to say that all HR personnel are evil and want to suck you dry like vampires. Still, a company’s primary goal is to turn as large a profit as possible. If they can underpay you, most will. You must know your worth, but doing so requires you to know who makes what and why. Somehow, knowledge that will empower you is impolite to seek.
You may be discouraged by management to have conversations surrounding pay. They may reprimand or threaten to terminate you for doing so. This is illegal. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 protects most workers’ rights to discuss wages with peers. There are some gaps in the law, so check with local laws to see whether those protect you if the NLRA doesn’t. If there are no laws on your side, consult company policy. Most people are free to talk money, but it’s always good to confirm.
The Benefactors of Transparency (It’s You)
So, keeping quiet about money matters keeps the fat cats fat.* Who benefits if you speak up? You! And your co-workers! We’ve discussed that women earn an average of 77 cents to a white man’s dollar, but a Hispanic woman earns just 53 cents to that white man’s dollar. These are statistics we know, but that doesn’t mean we expect them to be true at our own company. You might assume that your organization treats people fairly. It’s nice to have faith that you work for a just employer, but it doesn’t hurt to check.
By discussing salaries, you and your co-workers might identify certain people as being under-paid. This is an opportunity to become allies to ensure everyone is treated right. You might remember the story of Jessica Chastain using her white privilege to get Octavia Spencer a massive pay raise for her work in a move. Obviously, we can’t all have the influence of Chastain, but you can provide a recommendation or a pay raise for your co-worker.
Might There be Riots?
Some people worry that discussing salary can make for a toxic work environment. People may become hostile toward managers or jealous of one another. You can find many of these articles online. You will always find people who want to maintain the status quo – especially if they’re benefiting from it. However, they do raise some good points to be aware of.
First, keep in mind who actually has control of your salary. Don’t blame your supervisor if they have no say in the matter. The idea is not to become a flaming rage machine; rather, it’s to arm yourself with knowledge so you can negotiate better and give that knowledge to your peers.
If you find out that Billy earns more than you, make sure you try to understand why that might be the case. Is his position different from yours? Has he worked for the company longer? Does he have more education? More experience? There may very well be a good reason. When discussing salaries, keep in mind that you’re doing it to empower one another, so make sure you get all the facts.
More Knowledge = Better Negotiation
Also, understand that going to your boss and demanding a raise because Billy earns more is not going to do you any favors. You have to be smart about this. If you think you deserve more, negotiate for a raise. Knowing what Billy earns can give you a sense of how much you should be earning, so try to negotiate to that salary without outright saying that you want to earn the same money that Billy gets. If you’re denied, ask why and how you can improve your chances. If you think you’re being treated unfairly, talk to HR or escalate, if necessary.
As you begin this discussion, don’t force anyone to disclose their income. If it makes a co-worker feel uncomfortable, it’s within her right to keep that information private. Explain why you’re asking, and inquire whether it would make her uneasy to hear your salary for her own reference. This is meant to be empowering, not embarrassing.
Finally, try to keep these conversations off-site. While it’s legal for you to have these discussions, it can make management nervous and grow to dislike you. Being seen as a rabble-rouser can be harmful to your career, so protect yourself and your co-workers by taking it to a coffee shop.
Salary Transparency’s Upward Trend
The norm of shame and secrecy regarding our income is not the friend of most workers. Keeping quiet about salaries helps the companies underpay their employees by creating an informational imbalance at the negotiating table. Luckily, pay transparency is gaining traction in the business world, which means companies are clear about their pay philosophy and reasoning, although some even disclose what every individual employee earns. Let’s hope that this continues to grow in popularity, as it creates a more equal work environment. A fairer office boosts morale and is a win for everyone. So, let’s talk salary. How much do you make?
* Here at Petite2Queen, we love fat cats – as in, actual, chubby felines. Of course, we want cats to be healthy, too. We love all cats, regardless of size.
Petite2Queen provides virtual mentoring to young women in life, at work, and in sales. Follow us for more practical advice you can put to use to improve your life and career.
Rachel Whitbeck is the Director of Content at Petite2Queen. She is working towards her PhD in Sociology at the University of Limerick in Ireland. Rachel uses her experience in writing, editing, and research to develop content that appeals to and is reflective of the diverse millennial woman.