Never talk about what you make with your co-workers — that’s the advice we’ve all heard probably dozens of times in our careers. “It’s unprofessional.” “It causes tension and jealousy.” “It’s an amateur move.” Over the years, I’ve heard all of those reasons for why I should remain tight-lipped about my often-paltry pay.
But what if by not talking about our salaries, we’re actually shortchanging ourselves? What if the best way to get paid what we’re worth is to start talking about what we make with each other — and then use that information to negotiate for a better salary?
This question came to me the other day when a friend of mine who knows what all the employees in her department make said to me, “one guys makes about $20,000 less than this other girl, but they do the same job — and he’s actually better at it than she is.” Poor guy, I thought — and then immediately wondered if I’d ever been in that same situation. I probably have, especially in those early jobs when I’d pretty much just jump at whatever salary HR threw out. The thought of that, of course, irritated me and led me to wonder if employees should actually be sharing their salaries with each other to keep from remaining underpaid, especially in the current work environment where we’re all doing the jobs of two (or more!) people.
So I decided to ask career experts: Should you share what you make with your coworkers? Most of the time, the answer to that question is “no,” says Roy Cohen, career coach and author of "The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide." The risks include your co-worker becoming jealous of you (or you getting jealous of them when you realize you’re underpaid), your manager finding out you did this and punishing you (especially in this economy), or your co-worker blabbing what you make all around the office, says career coach Nicole Williams, the connection director for LinkedIn. Plus, “it can get awkward, fast,” says Lisa Adams, founder of the career-transition firm Fresh Air Careers.
However, it’s sometimes a good idea to share your salary with a coworker, experts say. That’s largely because knowledge of what co-workers make “can help with the salary negotiation process,” Williams explains.
So, here are three instances when it may help you professionally to talk about your salary with a coworker. (Just beware: This can backfire.)
1. You’re fairly sure you’re underpaid (and you truly trust your co-worker)
If you have a coworker with a similar job that you trust, you may want to share your salary with her if you’re fairly certain you’re being underpaid. The reason: “Transparency can help the salary negotiation process,” says Williams. Still this is very risky and you must “weigh the risks before you talk about salary” (see above) and realize that “you may not get the answer you expect,” she adds.
How to do it: “It has to be a reciprocal share,” says Williams. “You have to be prepared to share your salary if you want to find out theirs’.” That often means you’ll need to offer up your salary first, so that your co-worker feels more comfortable sharing hers.“ Just be sure to preface the talk as one that’s “just between the two of you.” And be prepared for the fact that some people feel it’s “inappropriate to talk about salary,” says Cohen — so you may not get them to share.
If you do find out you’re underpaid, don’t just march into your bosses office and say “Sally makes way more than me so I deserve to be paid more,” Williams advises. Instead, use her salary as a point of reference for how much of a raise you might ask for. During the salary negotiation, “pose your desire for a raise by stressing your individual value, highlighting your accomplishments and assets,” says Williams. But “don’t mention the other person’s salary.” You also need to “make sure that what you present to your boss is in no way adversarial,” says Cohen. You may also want to offer alternatives if the salary cannot be adjusted like tuition reimbursement or Fridays off in the summer, he adds.
2. You suspect everyone is underpaid
“When you have reason to believe that everyone at your company or in your department is underpaid, it can make sense to share your salary with co-workers,” says Cohen. “This can help the group join forces to all negotiate a better salary.” Basically, the fact that multiple employees are pushing for higher pay at once puts more pressure on the company to grant their wishes (after all, it’s harder to replace a whole bunch of people than just one in a short amount of time).
How to do it: Go on a site like Vault.com or Salary.com and pull information about what people in your field in your city make. Use this as the conversation starter (one prefaced with the fact that this conversation is “in confidence”) with a trusted person in your company, saying something like, “I did some research on salaries in our field and city, and it seems like we’re all being underpaid.” If they agree with you, you both may want to confidentially talk to others about the issue so that eventually everyone — or many of you — can join forces to negotiate better pay. During the negotiation, present your boss with the data on what comparable companies pay.
3. Someone leaves or gets promoted
It can make sense to discuss salary with someone who has just left the company or gotten promoted, says Cohen. That’s because this person is no longer in competition with you for the job (so there’s less risk of jealousy). Still, you need to make sure you trust the person, and if there is a large age or experience gap, you should recognize that they may have been paid more because they had more in-depth knowledge or experience than you, he says.
How to do it: See No. 1.
More from Forbes.com