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Your Boss Wants You to Keep Your Salary a Secret, But Should You?

Topics: Negotiation

If you’re like most working Americans today, you grew up in a culture that taught you that talking about money was one of the greatest taboos. But, that’s starting to change. These days, we’re learning about how it is important to talk about money, and salary, and the collective fear we’d developed around these conversations is starting to shrink away.

salary secret
Image Credit: kevindooley/Flickr

However, not everyone has gotten the message. So, if you have a manager who wants you to keep your salary a secret, or you work in a culture that actively seeks to hide this type of information in any way, you might be wondering whether or not you should play along. Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you decide how to proceed.

  1. The law is (probably) on your side.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand that your employer probably can’t prohibit you from discussing salary with your coworkers. The National Labor Relations Act protects your right to engage in “mutual aid and protection.”

The usual caveat applies — we are not lawyers, and that’s who you should talk to, if you have a real question about your rights regarding your employment.

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  1. Pay transparency helps everyone, not just you.

Not every corporate culture reveres secrecy in salary communications. Some employers believe in pay transparency, which doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone at the company knows how much everyone else is earning. It simply means that there is a clear plan in terms of how employees are compensated, and that everyone is aware of that strategy and those methods.

In a pay-transparent culture, salary is determined using a predetermined and well-articulated philosophy, and all employees understand the process. Pay transparency builds employees’ understanding, and it helps to keep things fair and honest. (For more compensation best practices, see PayScale’s report.)

If you’re not a decision-maker, all of this might seem beside the point. Decisions about compensation planning are made far above the average worker on the org chart. But, understanding why it’s better for everyone if your company is open about finances, not just for you, might change your perception of the value of talking about pay.

  1. Not talking about money is for the wealthy.

Last year, Laura Shin wrote a piece for Forbes which explored the idea that the belief that people should not discuss money is most firmly held by the wealthy. She recounts several stories about spending time in financially prosperous circles and encountering the taboo. One source suggested to Shin that it was a carryover from cultural roots in Europe, where it was easier to determine who had money.

“People who were wealthy didn’t need to talk about it because they knew – from how many houses you had, what cars you drove, how many servants you had, the yachts that you had, where you vacationed. They could figure out what your net worth was,” Jodi R.R. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting told Shin. She went on to say that things started to shift when folks with “new money” came into the conversation. “Knowledge was power, and knowing how much things cost would lead to movement among the social classes, but even so, you had to be careful in the way you talked about it.”

The problem is that not talking about money doesn’t do anything to help you earn more of it. In fact, the only people who can afford not to talk about money are the ones who have plenty of it.

  1. Millennials seem to be taking things a step further.

Earlier this year, Time reported on a survey by Ally Bank, which sought to uncover the current state of money talk in our culture. It indicated that we’re learning that talking about money and salary isn’t just allowed, but important.

This seems especially true for Millennials. Although seven out of 10 Americans said that they thought it was rude or inappropriate to discuss money in a social setting, more than half of Millennials said that they readily disclose facts about their financial standing to others, including information about money, debt, and salary. Things are really starting to change, and this pressure from younger workers should help encourage managers to be more open as well.

  1. Secrets just don’t serve you…

You may have heard the expression, you’re only as sick as your secrets. It’s true that we can only heal, repair, and improve circumstances and conditions that we are first willing to acknowledge. When we keep something buried, hidden, when we avoid discussion, that thing we avoid is awfully slow to change. So, if you’re looking to better your financial situation, talking openly about your salary could help.

  1. At the end of the day, you have to do what you have to do.

Still have a bad feeling that talking about your salary could come back to bite you? Listen to your instincts. It’s all well and good to know that the law – and increasingly, the culture – is on your side, but if you feel like being open about your pay is more dangerous than it’s worth, go with your gut. Just consider whether your gut is also telling you that it’s time to move on to a company that understands the value of pay transparency.

Tell Us What You Think

How do you feel about discussing money and salary with others? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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