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When Can You Talk About Salary?

Topics: Negotiation

Recently, Bradley Cooper made headlines when he stood up for fellow actor Jennifer Lawrence, who was paid significantly less than her male costars on a movie project. He pledged to start talking to his co-workers about what he was making, in an effort to help them negotiate better contracts, telling Reuters: “Usually you don’t talk about the financial stuff, you have people. But you know what? It’s time to start doing that.” But for us lowly non-Hollywood types, talking about salary might be a bit more complicated.


(Photo Credit: Kevin Dooley/Flickr)

While Kate Winslet might think it’s a bit “vulgar” to talk about money, others see it as an effective way to fight the gender pay gap. There are a lot of tricky questions when it comes to discussing salary. I asked a few to a couple of experts.

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1. Lots of employers have a policy that tells workers they can’t talk about their salary to fellow employees. Does that mean that any salary talk off the table? 

Dawn Rosenberg McKay, Career Planning Expert on said:

“First of all, people should know that these policies are often illegal. Ten states so far have laws that prohibit employers from enacting and enforcing such policies. As of January 11, 2016, [there will be] a law prohibiting U.S. federal contractors and subcontractors from ‘discharging or discriminating against employees or applicants who inquire about, discuss, or disclose their own compensation or the compensation of another employee or applicant’ (source). In addition, the National Labor Relations Act also protects many workers from retaliation for discussing pay.

“With that said, a worker has to make a decision when it comes to discussing their salaries with co-workers. One has to ask herself if she wants to breach a policy, even if it is illegal. While the law will be on her side, she has to be willing to fight that battle. I’m not saying someone shouldn’t fight that battle, but she should go into it fully aware that it won’t be easy. If a law doesn’t protect an employee, disobeying a policy, even if you feel the policy is wrong, could be grounds for losing one’s job. Read the policy carefully and then decide if what you are about to divulge to your co-workers is allowed.”

2. If you want to ask fellow employees what they make compared to you, what’s a polite way to do that?

McKay responded, “Obviously, this is a very sensitive subject, so you want to be very cautious when you approach a fellow employee. You should always make it clear to the person you are asking about this, that you don’t want to do anything that will make him uncomfortable. Explain that you are asking because you are negotiating your salary. Assure him that you will not share this information with anyone (and by all means, stick to that promise). If your colleague declines your request, don’t push.”

Asked the same question, Courtney Davis Burgwyn, Market Manager at staffing firm Vitamin T said, “Asking someone how much they make is a personal question. Be prepared to know why you are asking. Is it because you feel you should be making more money? If so, then there are salary guides that are online that can help you determine if you are being underpaid. It definitely depends on the relationship you have with the person if you really need to ask them. It is not recommended.”

In fact, one such tool is PayScale’s Salary Survey, which generates a free report comparing your earnings with similar job titles at other companies.

3. We all know money is at the heart of figuring out if a new job could be “the right fit.” But when is it OK to talk to a potential future employer about salary?

Burgwyn said:

“It is wise to bring up salary requirements after the first interview. The reason being is that if an employer meets you and really thinks you would be a good fit then they will be more willing to negotiate with you on salary and come closer to your salary requirements. If you bring up salary before an interview then they will have a reason to decline an interview with you.

“If the employer brings up salary prior to the interview always give a range. If you like the company you can tell them that your range is negotiable dependent on the interview and learning more about the job responsibilities.” 

To aid you in your salary negotiations, see PayScale’s Salary Negotiation Guide. We’ve broken up the process into three easy steps — Research, Strategize, and Negotiate.

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Have you discussed salary with a co-worker? What was the result? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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Yes, I’ve discussed my salary with coworkers. The only fail-safe way to do this is to let them know YOUR salary first, in a lighthearted way. You should become aware of the response, nonverbal queues. Some may not share, but it’ll be a dead giveaway if you are lower.

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