Adam Ruins Everything by Asking Coworkers to Share Salary Information

Adam Ruins Everything is an educational sketch comedy show that aims to teach people why their conceptions of the world are wrong. (But in a fun way!)

Adam Conover’s most recent episode dealt with sharing salary information, and how we should be doing more of it. After all, it’s legal, and it’s one way for employees to gain leverage in salary and raise negotiations.

“Discussing your salary with your coworkers is your right as an employee,” he says. “When you let [companies] stop you from doing it, you push your own wages down, which means you’re spending more years of your life slaving away in a job that doesn’t pay you what you’re really worth.”

I’m not sure it’s that simple. I totally get the point of his sketch, which he sums up by showing clips of two (fake) job interviews in which two employees are offered different salaries accompanied by a sorrowful “this is all we can pay you.” Both leave the interview thinking “I guess that’s what everyone here makes,” and that’s the type of assumption that definitely gets in our way when negotiating salary.

But these are fake interviews with comedy actors, and Adam’s conclusion that if we just discussed salary, we’d all earn more doesn’t ring true.

The part that rings the least true is the scene where he shows what we fear will happen when we discuss salary vs. what will actually happen when we discuss salary. We fear that our coworkers will resent us for earning more, when actually — according to Adam — we’re all going to resent the company for not paying us more fairly. (And we can use that resentment to take action!)

Look, I know humans, and I bet you do too. We’re going to resent other people for earning more. We might feel uncomfortable about this resentment, but a lot of us are pretty aware that companies have a payroll budget, which does imply that one person’s higher salary takes resources away from another person’s paycheck. There isn’t an infinite pile of money that companies deliberately distribute inequitably.

Overall I agree with the basic argument Adam is presenting: discussing salary is our legal right as an employee, and taking a boss’s statement that “this is all we can pay you” at face value means leaving money on the table. (This is where you should be documenting your contributions to the company and setting up a six-month performance review where you discuss what successful performance looks like and begin the conversation about long-term salary adjustments. In theory. As always, adding humans — and corporations — makes it more problematic.)

What do you think? Is Adam right, and we’re ruining everything for ourselves by not discussing salary openly? Or is it more complicated than what he describes?

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