Should you tell the world how much money you make?

- Laura M Holson

May 13, 2019-

There are many questions Alison Green is asked as a columnist who writes about workplace issues. There was the woman who wanted to know if she should attend couple’s therapy with her boss and the boss’s boyfriend. (The boyfriend happened to be her father.) Another time she heard complaints about a janitor who cast a hex on her colleagues.

But Ms Green was taken aback recently when asked about her salary, a topic so fraught even she couldn’t come up with a good answer. “No one has ever asked me that,” she said. “I don’t want to say.”

Many employees are loath to discuss their salaries, she said, worried it would cause resentment, or worse, among peers. “We are all so weird about telling people how much money we make, even me.”

Perhaps it is why, too, Ms Green recently asked readers of her Ask A Manager website to share their job title, where they live and how much they make each year. Answers were anonymous; the data was compiled in a spreadsheet on Ms Green’s website so people could sort through the data.

Within a half-hour, she had 1,000 responses. A day later, so many people posted their salaries her website froze. So far, three weeks later, she has more than 26,000 responses, everything from an accountant in Chicago who makes $90,000 to a librarian in Austin who earns $39,000. She was surprised by the overwhelming response: Previous surveys in 2014 and 2017 garnered a fraction of interest, fewer than 2,700 comments apiece.

Why the interest now? Attitudes about workers disclosing pay are shifting, for one, as unemployment has reached a five-decade low. And the gig economy has made salary comparing a near necessity for many. (How else does a person know what to charge if they are a freelancer?)

Liz Dolan, the host of the podcast “Safe for Work” and a former marketing chief at Nike and the Oprah Winfrey Network, said she used to believe that salary information should be private. “Now I see it is about secrecy, and that is a bad thing,” she said.

Secrecy is one reason accurate salary data is hard to find. It also benefits companies if employees underestimate their value.

Services like the Bureau of Labour Statistics, Glassdoor and Indeed tabulate statistics, but those numbers can be outdated or, at best, a guesstimate of what an employee might expect to earn. Many unions, for their part, tabulate overall salary information, which is shared with members so they can better bargain for raises and equal pay. “You build trust by being transparent with your workers,” said Ms Dolan.

There is no law that stops employees from sharing salary information, but myths persist at many workplaces that sharing is forbidden. “People feel like they don’t have the right to talk about salary,” said Caitlin Zaloom, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at New York University. “That’s because managers want to keep salaries down and pay people less. It is easier if they control the information.”

She added, “Speculating about what a person makes can lead to a competitiveness that fuels poor morale.”

There are rules, of course, about what a company can share or even ask: In some places, including New York City, employers are no longer allowed to ask job candidates for their salary history, because it is thought to perpetuate pay gaps.

In her column, Ms Green said, questions about salary dominate, but she has no plans to further analyse the data she’s collected. “People have so much fear making a salary request, worried they are out of touch with the market,” she said. “That fear is bigger than being underpaid.” Women are especially concerned they will be penalized if they advocate too much for themselves, she said. But consider this: A woman working a full-time job earns 80.7 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to federal statistics.

“There is a massive hunger for information about how we figure this out,” Ms Green said.

Ms Zaloom advocates that employees talk among trusted colleagues, which is what she does with a small group of friends around the country. “We call each other when we negotiate,” she said. At the same time, parents and children should be more open, too, she said. “Families impose silence between generations,” she said.

Ms Zaloom has a book coming out in the fall, “Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost,” for which she talked to 160 families about their finances. She asked teenagers, for one, if they knew what their parents earned. “Very few had any idea,” Ms Zaloom said. “And those that knew were way off, estimating their parents made more than they did.”

Parents don’t want their children to be burdened with financial worries. “There is an incredible amount of shame around salaries, which is why parents don’t discuss it,” she said.

Ms Dolan counselled that pay standards should be set with employees and, most importantly, adhered to. “If every deal is individually negotiated, you will have an inequitable system,” she said. She said, too, people should ask for regular raises, noting that the earnings compounded over time were considerable. Until then, talking helps.

“Sometimes you have to be first and that is the scary part,” Ms Dolan said. “It’s important to build that confidence.”

—© 2019 The New York Times

Published: 13-05-2019 10:00

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