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Should You Tell Your Co-Workers How Much You Make?

Americans spend a lot of time at work. It's no wonder that co-workers turn into sincere friends sometimes, given how much we're together. But, there is one topic of conversation that even the closest co-worker buds tend to avoid – discussions of salary. There might be some really good reasons to start talking about it though, despite the fact that money discussion makes us a little uncomfortable. Let's look at this issue a little more closely in order to understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of discussing compensation with co-workers.

Americans spend a lot of time at work. It’s no wonder that co-workers turn into sincere friends sometimes, given how much we’re together. But, there is one topic of conversation that even the closest co-worker buds tend to avoid – discussions of salary. There might be some really good reasons to start talking about it though, despite the fact that money discussion makes us a little uncomfortable. Let’s look at this issue a little more closely in order to understand the potential benefits and drawbacks of discussing compensation with co-workers.

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(Photo Credit: JD Hancock/Flickr)

Lack of pay transparency encourages and reinforces the gender pay gap.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

How does talking about salary close the gender pay gap? Simple: if co-workers were more aware of one another’s salaries, bosses couldn’t get away with paying some more than others.

“Transparency is so important, because if you know what your salary is and what your colleagues are making, that gives women the information they need to negotiate and to ask and be paid fairly and equally to men,” said Deborah Gillis, President and CEO of Catalyst, a nonprofit that works to promote inclusive workplaces for women, on CBS This Morning,

But, sharing one’s salary still feels like a bold and scary move.

Take it from Erica Baker, former Google engineer, who ran her own informal salary transparency experiment this past summer. She and some of her co-workers created a spreadsheet that listed their salaries and shared it on an internal network at the company. As more folks added their data, “not-great” trends (to use Baker’s words) became apparent.

The consequences were numerous, and both positive and negative in nature. On the bright side, Baker says she received “peer bonuses” (a system used by Google) from co-workers. On the flip side, she also reported being called in to a meeting with a manager and being reprimanded. Baker is no longer with Google, but she told The Huffington Post that this move wasn’t because of the spreadsheet. She also reported some positive changes inside the company as a result of her actions.

“People asked for and got equal pay based on the data in the sheet,” she said in a tweet.

A Google spokesperson provided the following statement on the matter:

“Our policy is not to comment on individual or former employees, but we can confirm that we regularly run analysis of compensation, promotion, and performance to ensure that they are equitable with no pay gap. Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose.”

Baker’s actions encouraged a more transparent discussion about compensation and how it’s determined. This is what pay transparency really means – it’s about building a common understanding about how earnings are determined, and holding employers accountable for sticking to their plan.

Legally, your employer probably can’t prohibit you from discussing your salary.

According to the National Labor Relations Board, and an executive order from President Obama in April of 2014, employers are not allowed to prohibit employees from discussing salary. Discussions of wages and compensation are understood to be an important part of collective bargaining actions, and they support fair and equal pay for women and other minority groups.

That said, most workers in the U.S. are at-will employees, meaning that they can be fired at any time for any reason at all. So, it’s possible that a crafty employer could get around the law by terminating you for an unrelated (and possibly trumped-up) cause.

What does this mean for your quest for pay transparency? Tread carefully. Know that the law protects your right to discuss your salary – but losing the good will of your manager could have repercussions.

Individuals should decide what’s best for them.

We didn’t always have the kinds of protections that now exist, and we should think about taking advantage of the work that people like Lilly Ledbetter did to get us to where we are today.

Discussions of wages and salary can help lead us to fair and equal pay. So, consider talking to your co-workers about your earnings. Another benefit of increased pay transparency is that it encourages companies to disclose (or, in some cases, design) the metrics they use to determine compensation.

Most people don’t know how well they’re compensated compared to the market. If you’re not up for a salary conversation with your co-workers just yet, take PayScale’s Salary Survey to find out how your pay stacks up. When it comes to pay, knowledge truly is power.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever spoken with your co-workers about salary? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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