Should You Talk About How Much You Earn At Work?

In Western societies, salaries are typically held in high confidentiality, a matter only to be discussed behind closed doors and preferably in soundproof rooms. The secrecy with which we guard our salary is akin to the secrecy surrounding the secret codes needed to launch US nuclear missiles.

But is this privacy actually holding us back in the workplace? Can we benefit from discussing our salaries with our colleagues?

Pay transparency can result in many positive outcomes. It can assist in establishing a fairer and more open playing field within the workplace jungle and increase employee satisfaction, resulting in higher levels of employee motivation and retention of staff.

Additionally, a joint study by Cornell University and Tel Aviv University found an association between pay transparency and improved employee collaboration, suggesting that employees work together more effectively when salaries can be discussed unabashedly in an open forum.

The issue of pay transparency is one that is important to Wendy Syfret, editor of i-D. ‘It [wage transparency] helps avoid people being taken advantage of, and also make sure their workplace is meeting an industry standard’, she says.

‘Beyond that, if people know what others earn, it means they work to their pay level. You won’t slack off or take advantage of those around you if you know they’re making less, but you also won’t work yourself to death if you realise someone else is being more compensated’.

Engaging in a culture of pay secrecy allows employers to pay employees less compared to other colleagues in the same role or with a similar level of experience, and it can also be a contributing factor towards the pay gap that exists between men and women.

According to the Gender Equity Insights 2017 Report, full-time working women currently earn 84% of a man’s pay on average, resulting in a full-time gender pay gap of 16%. Twenty years ago, the full-time gender pay gap was 17%, which shows that gender pay equity remains a persistent issue in the Australian workforce.

Syfret says ‘[wage transparency] is the only real way we can take on the wage gap … 90% of the time the wage gap isn’t a conscious decision, people are responding to societal conditioning. If you can point it out, 90% of the time it will be corrected’.

However, there are still concerns that being candid about salaries can also have serious negative ramifications. ‘Some employers feel that pay transparency could lead to a decrease in staff morale or cause conflict and friction between employees’, says Nick Deligiannis, Hays Managing Director for Australia & New Zealand.

‘It will also lead to a lot of pressure from staff who then want salaries in line with those at their level who are paid more—even if their performance may not warrant it … If salaries are to be transparent, so too must the minimum performance expectations that qualify an employee to move to the next salary band up’.

But just how important are salaries in an increasingly mobile and flexible workforce in which Millennials are seeking alternative ways of working to the traditional 9 to 5 model?

In a report conducted by Hays, 86% of employees stated that flexible work was a ‘very important’ engagement factor, while 20% said they would take a salary cut if it meant they could work from home. ‘Salaries are a fraction of what makes a good work place … Money won’t help if you hate your job’, offers Syfret.

Although pay transparency is still the exception rather than the norm, there are some examples that indicate that pay transparency is being embraced by companies, particularly within the tech industry. Buffer, a start-up tech company, has endorsed the pay transparency concept and has made the salaries of all employees available via a public spreadsheet.

Additionally, websites such as PayScale and online salary calculators now also provide industry salary averages that can be used as a broad baseline for estimating how much you should be getting paid for a particular role or within a specific industry.

Despite this small shift towards pay transparency, the fact remains that salary is still very much a taboo subject. So how exactly can we initiate a discussion about our pay without wanting the earth to open up and swallow us whole?

‘Talk to the people on your level first. Have a coffee, get out of the office, get the info in a neutral space’, 
Syfret suggests. ‘People are getting more comfortable in talking about money, we just need to keep pushing to break down that social faux pas element. Just think, people used to not like talking about sex and politics, now it’s all we talk about. Let’s do that with money’.

Camha is a freelance editor and writer currently based in Perth. She is a wannabe word nerd, travel-addict and coffee enthusiast, and thinks that life is just one big Seinfeld episode (where Elaine is her BFF). She has written for Broadsheet, AWOL, The Big Bus and the Huffington Post Australia, and tweets at @curatedbycammi