A reader writes:
I have always believed that knowledge is power, but when it comes to salaries, is there ever a reason to keep such things quiet?
For my entire career, I have stayed in the dark about what my coworkers were earning and likewise did not share my salary either. This is the unspoken rule of etiquette everywhere I have worked, and my bosses have always been coy about sharing pay ranges/bands, so it’s always been hard to know how I stacked up in terms of compensation.
Last year, many of my colleagues were laid off and, while I survived the cutbacks, the impact on my personal well-being was significant. With our reduced staffing, I took on the workload of an entire team, and the stress and insane hours (which were already high when we were fully staffed) quickly grew unmanageable. A few months ago, I jumped at another opportunity and I am happy with my decision.
Upon leaving my (now former) company, a trusted friend/coworker was offered my job, which should have been a rather large promotion for him. However, recently we were catching up over lunch and he said that his raise had not been very much at all. He did not state his income, and I’ve always suspected that he made much less money than I did, but I was surprised he did not get a hefty raise considering the level of work he assumed by taking on this new position.
So I decided to come right out and tell him what I had been making in that same job. Why not, right? I no longer work there and thought this information might be helpful to him in negotiating additional raises. But, his face when I told him was … ghastly. He expressed that he was making significantly less than that, and the gap seemed so wide that even a huge raise for him would not put him anywhere near my salary.
Did I make a mistake? Is this a case where having this knowledge was (unintentionally) harmful vs. helpful? Obviously what’s done is done, but I worry that his discontent in his job will grow now, because even if he does manage to use the information I gave him to get a (much-needed) bump in pay he’ll still be stuck with all the additional drama and responsibility of this position while knowing he isn’t earning what he could/should be. It made me wonder if I should stay mum about this topic when speaking with other friends in the future. Is salary simply too taboo to discuss in polite company?
Noooo! Don’t conclude that.
You did the right thing by sharing your salary information with your colleague.
It is never to a worker’s advantage to be left in the dark about what a company is willing to pay — and especially what they did pay — for a particular job. It is always better for people to have more information about pay than less.
That doesn’t mean the person you share salary info with will never find it upsetting! It is upsetting to learn that a predecessor was making mountains of money more than you are. Being upset makes sense!
For the sake of thoroughness, I will note that sometimes people have bad reactions to this sort of news that aren’t constructive — like resenting the higher-paid colleague rather than blaming the company. That could happen! It still wouldn’t mean you’d made the wrong choice in sharing the info with them.
Shining light on companies’ pay practices — specific ones, like “in this role I was earning $X,” not just broad salary bands — is how salary inequities get discovered and addressed. They don’t always get fixed — but even when they don’t, people having more info is a good thing because it helps them make better decisions for themselves, whether that decision is “keep pushing” or “sue because this seems linked to race or gender” or “leave for a better job” or “file away this info about the market and the company for a later time.”
Treating salary discussions as taboo benefits employers and hurts workers. Keep talking about it.