Why We Should Talk About Money at Work

by Megan Reynolds

We are told from a young age to never, ever speak about money. Don’t ask anybody how much they make, or how much they paid for their car, or how much they pay in rent for that beautiful apartment. It is tacky, it is rude, it’s not something that nice people do. I am not one of those nice people. Talking about the cost of things, for me, is a necessity. If I got something for cheap, and someone asks me about it, I am more than willing to tell them how much I paid, because I live in New York, and not a whole lot about this place is very cheap. I try to employ this kind of transparency in my day-to-day, because I think that breaking down the barriers that we create when it comes to finances is important.

The one place I have always wanted to talk about money openly, but have never felt comfortable until very recently, is the office. The curiosity about what others make is natural. If you’re doing the same kind of work as someone else, the assumption is that you’re being compensated equally, but the fact that there is a well-documented pay gap says otherwise. Talking about money in the workplace is the last taboo.You can eat lunch in the conference room together and make jokes about how nobody can afford anything, because you’re all getting paid in handfuls of spare change and “experience,” but that conversation is just posturing without real, hard evidence behind it.

The arguments against pay transparency are not even vocalized, but merely assumed. We do not ask what others are making because it is not polite, and besides, who’s going to tell you, anyway? Jonathan Timm, a writer at the Atlantic, recently shared his story about pay transparency. When attempting to negotiate his salary at a law firm, he was gently rebuffed by the HR woman. He writes:

The HR manager tried to convince me that the offer was competitive. She told me that she couldn’t offer more because it would be unfair to other paralegals. She said that if we did not agree to a salary that day, then she would have to suspend me because I would be working past the allowed temp phase. I insisted that she look into a higher offer and she agreed that we could meet again later. Before I left, she had something to add.

“Make sure you don’t talk about your salary with anyone,” she said sweetly, as if she was giving advice to her own son. “It causes conflict and people can be let go for doing it.”

There are a variety of factors that go into determining an appropriate salary. Are you doing work that is specialized? Do you have a degree that you are still paying for, in a field you chose specifically for its ability to give you a leg up on the competition? Do you have special skills and experience that would make somebody want to throw you an extra five to 10 thousand dollars a year because they can’t find it anywhere else? If any of these things apply to you, then of course you want to know how much money you’re making in comparison to others because you want to be treated fairly.

Speculating about why Jason in marketing makes $10K more a year than Alicia, when she does the same job, but better, is an effective way to kill time when you’re waiting your turn at the microwave, or printing out something longer than five pages. It’s It’s also totally and completely legal, despite what your office manager tells you.

Employers fear transparency in the office because it encourages dissent. Stir the masses from their stupor and you have a revolution on your hands. People deserve to know how their pay stacks up to the others, because it discourages complacency, encourages ambition and, you know, motivates people to either work harder or get out. I worked for a company once that had a CEO problem, shuffling through three in as many years before I got laid off. One night, at a work function, she pulled me aside and whispered that one day one of the photo editors had been tasked with balancing a spreadsheet that consisted of every employee at the company and their salaries — a precursor to the layoffs that came soon after. This was transparency at its most negligent, but it was eye opening, to say the least. If the office manager at this job was having a particularly off day, we could get to talking, and she’d let me know just how much others were making in comparison to myself, via a purposeful eyebrow raise in response to rattled-off numbers.

At first, I felt terrible. I was aware of the amount of work I was doing, and to know that I was being under compensated didn’t feel good. But, the upshot is that this information led to the complacent bubble being burst. I started looking for other work. I started to gain an understanding of what my worth was to a company. When I got laid off, I was upset, but it lit a fire under my ass to start looking for things that would pay me correctly. Things like Glassdoor.com and Salary.com exist to fill the void that’s left at most workplaces by a lack of pay transparency. Use them to you advantage.

It may seem funny, at first, to ask a coworker how much they make, but the fact of the matter is, your employer probably isn’t going to tell you. If you want to know if you’re being compensated fairly, speak to the people that sit next to you every day, in the line at Chipotle on your lunch break, or in the elevator as you leave work. Ask colleagues whom you trust and can be discreet about the conversations. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be for future pay negotiations.

Megan Reynolds lives in New York.

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