Revealing to coworkers how much money you make has long been considered taboo, and sometimes even banned by HR departments eager to keep such salary discussions on a strictly "need to know" basis.
But amid renewed emphasis on pay equity in the workplace, including closing gender and, ideas about what we should know about our colleagues' salary are changing in ways that could benefit employees and employers alike, according to experts.
"Pay transparency is the future. There is no way of getting around it," said David Turetsky, a compensation expert with Salary.com. "Some states are even codifying that by ensuring when a job is posted, the pay range for that job also gets listed."
For workers, knowing what someone in an identical position earns can expose pay disparities within an organization, although without guaranteeing recourse or a raise. But at least awareness of such discrepancies can encourage underpaid, proponents of pay transparency say.
By contrast, skeptics argue, it may also lead to jealousy, awkwardness and resentment.
"Never a good idea"
There are two general schools of thought on the issue. On the one hand, some salary and career experts say it's a bad idea for individuals to ask coworkers what they earn.
"It's never a good idea to turn to colleague and ask what they're making," Turetsky said. "There is no upside."
One concern is that such informal conversations can result in people knowing less, not more, about a company's presiding wage scales.
"Your colleague could be lying to you and gaming you to see what you're making," he said. "They might not show all their cards. Or you could find out they earn a bonus and you don't."
Instead, Turetsky believes all conversations around compensation should be funneled through a manager or human resources department.
"These are business decisions that have to do with you as an employee in that job. Whether it's more or less than someone else is based on the deal you made with your employer when you started," he said.
A benchmark for what you're worth
Indeed, today's labor market looks a lot different than it did. Workers quit their jobs at during the so-called Great Resignation, and employers are now having to pay or offer as they vie for talent.
"In these times of the 'Great Resignation,' there's inflation of salaries and a lot of companies are all over the board," said Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits for Korn Ferry's human resources department. "Someone who has been in their job for a while may be getting a 3%-4% raise every year, and someone just coming in could be making double. That's where you run into problems in a volatile labor market — where it's hard to be transparent and achieve equity when we have this labor shortage and competition for talent."
But if a company has a well-established compensation structure in place with salary ranges associated with job levels, Bloom supports workers asking what others make.
"For organizations that have a very mature compensation structure with very clear salary bands, job grades and transparency on career progression, I think it's a good idea to ask," he said.
Armed with that knowledge, you can approach your manager and ask why you're lagging peers or discuss more generally what's behind a seeming pay gap.
"For individuals, the pro of asking is it's a benchmark for what you think you should get paid — it's a data point," said Joanna Kim-Brunetti, chief legal officer at Trusaic, a software company that helps firms conduct pay parity audits.
Opacity drives inequity
Some experts say the onus is on employers to be as open as possible about salary ranges and how they compensate workers from the get-go.
"I think it's a thorny issue at the individual level, but at the employer level it makes a lot of sense and it will drive equity because opaqueness only drives inequity," Kim-Brunetti said. "If you have a set pay range, it makes the individual disclosure less significant."
For example, if a worker is employed as an assistant and the pay range for the position is $60,000 to $70,000, they're likely to be less curious about how much money other assistants earn.
In any event, employers should be prepared to defend their compensation structures, given that pay transparency is likely the way of the future.
"This is coming and they should get ahead of it. People are going to be pissed off if they realize they're on the losing end of pay inequity," said Jeff Moriarty, a professor of business ethics at Massachusetts' Bentley University.
Meanwhile, more workers openly sharing their pay would likely encourage companies to ensure their compensation practices are fair.
"If employers know employees can, and will, talk among themselves about what they're getting paid, that employer will take steps to ensure they won't discover any pay inequities," Moriarty said.
How about in job interviews?
It's also time to do away with the old norm of not discussing money during the job interview process, experts say. Conducting multiple meetings when the top end of a position's salary range is well below what the candidate would accept is a waste of time for everyone, said Kathryn Minshew, founder and CEO of The Muse, a career website that helps job seekers and employers.
"It is very helpful for candidates to ask and for employers to share that info upfront. If there is a big mismatch, the sooner you know, the better it is for both sides," she said.
The Muse conducts a companywide annual salary audit to ensure that workers are paid fairly based on their position, level and experience and to guard against discrepancies across workers of different genders, races and ethnicities.
"We want to make sure that collectively we are honoring our commitment to pay equity in all of the salaries that we give," she said.
Added Turetsky of Salary.com about the shift in the working world toward greater transparency.
"You have to either embrace it or deal with the consequences of not embracing it. There are no two ways about it," he said.
This means having a salary range in mind for a candidate, and offering them that figure even if they ask for less money. In other words, when companies fully reveal their compensation structures, they can't bring on new employees at a discount.
"There are no deals. You cannot get a great deal from hiring someone," he said.
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