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Talking Salary With Your Co-Workers Could Help Your Career

More transparency around our paychecks can actually help increase them.
ImagE: Colleagues working together on a tablet in the office
Thirty-three percent of older millennials (aged 27 to 36) said they share their salary with colleagues.Getty Images

“How much do you make”?

This is a question that has historically been deemed risky, if not downright rude, to ask your colleagues. In my experience working in offices (I'm now freelance), I recall knowing only my closest colleagues' salaries; we discussed our pay quietly, outside of the office, and never, ever did we let our bosses or HR department know that we'd been sharing what felt like potentially harmful secrets.

Well, it looks like this hush-hush attitude about salary is changing. A new survey from Bankrate's The Cashelorette, shows that 30 percent of Americans talk about how much they make with their coworkers. That the number was “so high” came as a surprise to Sarah Berger, author of The Cashlorette blog, who was inspired to do this survey after talking with her more reserved parents.

"I was talking to my parents who were shocked that I was so open about how much I make — and that my friends do the same," says 24-year-old Berger. "We're totally transparent about it, whereas my parents say they never spoke about it, not even when they were young."

A new survey shows that 30 percent of Americans talk about how much they make with their coworkers.

The survey suggests that Berger isn’t the only who shocked her folks: 33 percent of older millennials (aged 27 to 36) said they share their salary with colleagues while only eight percent of baby boomers were so forthcoming.

"I was pleasantly surprised that so many millennials are talking openly about salary," says Berger. "The more we talk about money, the more we learn."

Knowing What You’re Worth And Advocating For Yourself

And the more we talk about money — particularly the money we earn — the more comfortable we are having such discussions, which can be helpful when we sit down with our bosses for that annual review.

“It is so important to have conversations around salary so that it's no longer taboo,” said Vicki Salemi, a career expert for “The more you talk about it without thinking that it's something you shouldn’t be talking about, the more confident you’ll likely be when you approach negotiation conversations. If you're trained to think money is hush-hush, it will be much more challenging to speak about it openly, calmly and confidently with your boss.”

Erin Lowry, personal finance expert and author of "Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Yourself Together," perceives this move millennials are making towards transparency around salary as "incredibly beneficial; it encourages people to advocate for themselves and get paid what their worth."

While you can do your research online on salary comparison sites like Glassdoor and PayScale, Salemi stresses that nothing really beats an open conversation with your colleagues. Even if you do find out you’re underpaid, you’ve learned something valuable — and you can do something about it, which Salemi stresses is essential.

“If you're underpaid you need to take action,” advises Salemi, adding that this could play out in a number of ways, either by talking one on one with your boss or brushing up your resumé and looking for another job. Either way, “this is empowering information, and you need to know.”

Shutting Down The Gender Pay Gap — And Building Trust

Being open about pay can also help us shine a light on the gender pay gap (women still make roughly $0.83 for every dollar men do), and ideally, work to close it.

“Salary transparency, or at least providing access to the range a company is willing to pay for specific positions, is a first step towards eradicating [the gender pay gap],” says Marissa Peretz, founder and recruiter at Silicon Beach Talent. “People who discover they are being paid less than their peers have the option to build a case to bring their salary in line with others at their level and start a discourse with their manager to move forward.”

Salary transparency is a first step towards eradicating the gender pay gap.

Becoming conscious of and eliminating its own gender pay gap was one motivation behind the social media marketing software company Buffer’s decision to be “radically transparent,” says Hailley Griffis, PR specialist at Buffer.

Buffer has publically revealed its discoveries of gender pay gap within the company for two years in a row. In 2016, the company “saw a way bigger gap than expected,” says Griffis, adding: “We didn't expect a problem, but there was a $9,500 gap.”

By understanding the gap (which Griffis says was largely due to the fact that the company had less women than men occupying the higher-earning engineering roles), the company was able to own its shortcomings and do better the following year.

“This year the gap was $2,400. And we openly share that number, because we’re trying to get it to zero,” says Griffis.

Also openly shared by Buffer: the salaries of all 70-something of its employees. Literally anyone can click on this spreadsheet and see what everybody in the company is making. Talk about taking transparency to the max! It’s a move the employees supported, but not after addressing concerns from leadership who worried that this information could give competitive companies an open invite to swoop in and offer employees more.

“There was worry that we were making it super easy to lose talent,” says Griffis. “But that hasn’t happened.”

If anything, it’s been the reverse.

“Our applications doubled in the months following making the spreadsheet public [in 2013],” says Griffis. “We saw insane amounts of interest, so we really didn't have to go out and do much recruiting. It was very cool, and still people reach out to us because of our transparency policies; they want to be involved.”

Encourage A Dialogue, But Be Tactful

Buffer serves as a great example of how transparency can benefit workplace culture, with Griffis noting that employees find comfort in knowing that they and their colleagues are being paid fairly.

“Transparency breeds high trust in organizations. It makes people happier and more productive at work, and is just a good business practice,” adds Griffis.

But Buffer is hardly the norm, and for most employees, talking about salary is difficult or daunting. And even if you are stoked to talk paychecks with your work buds, experts advise that you be tactful and strategic in how you broach the topic.

“This isn’t a conversation you want to have at the water cooler,” says Salemi. “And it’s not something you want to talk about with colleagues you don't get along with. Find a right place and time to have the conversation, maybe go out for coffee with a trusted colleague.”

If you’re looking for a way to ease into a conversation, cite percentages, not numbers.

Your colleagues may be wary to talk about their pay (or yours), and if it’s not a discussion they want to have, you need to respect those boundaries. But if you’re looking for a way to ease into a conversation, Salemi recommends citing percentages, not numbers.

“Something like, ‘Hey, I got a four percent raise this year; or a ten percent raise, or no raise,” says Salemi. “Then see if that opens a conversation about specific numbers. Keep the emotions in check though, and don’t brag; just encourage a dialogue.”

Author Lowry adds that if you do find out an employee is making more than you, you should never use it as a weapon in your negotiations, or state it accusingly to your supervisor as in “I know Brad is making more than me.” That’s not going to help you.

“Always focus on tracking your own success metrics and improvements in order to showcase why you deserve that raise and/or promotion,” says Lowry.

Your peers and even your boss may be more willing to open up than you’d expect because of the mere fact that technology has made so much information available online, not just on salary comparison sites, but on job boards and even our own social media pages.

“There’s a strong technology angle here,” notes Michael Madowitz, an economist at the Center for American Progress. “We’re just much more open because all that data is out there now. I remember my parents telling me when I was a kid when I asked what our mortgage was that how much houses cost was not something to be talked about. But now everything is super available and we can all talk about it.”

Back to Griffis of Buffer’s point: Transparency is just a good business practice, and it’s something we’ll likely see future generations prize even more.

“I think this [30 percent] number will go up,” says Salemi. “Paid internships are becoming more common and if you look at Gen Z, they talk openly about what they’re making in those internships.”

As the younger generations start to shine the spotlight on the elephant in the room, we may see older generations follow suit.

“Gen Xers and boomers will hopefully see the benefit in this knowledge,” says Salemi. “It can only empower you.”

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