Should you talk about how much you make with your colleagues?

This question has bothered me since joining the UK workforce. In a country where money is a hush hush affair and a huge taboo, should you be stepping out of the ranks and discussing how much you make with your peers?

The ‘why’

There is a plethora of reasons why your employer does not want all employees chitchatting about who gets how much for what. It’s a surefire way to cause resentment from the team members who are underpaid, make the team members who are overpaid uncomfortable and expose unfair remuneration practices in a business. Any bosses nightmare, really. More so, if you are unaware of your earning potential and have to rely on HR estimates (which are almost always lowball), you will not have a benchmark to assess the role you are applying for or working in against. And if you don’t know what you should be asking for…are you sure you just want to take what you are being offered?

Discussing salary levels, expectations and what competition pays are crucial in most industries – without such discussions employees have no leverage to increase their reward for commuting time, energy and skills to a business they are working in. Unless you are already in an unionised profession or with a company that uses strict salary bands, it is in your best financial interest to know exactly how much to expect for your work.

The ‘how’

If you have acquaintances in the same profession but working for different companies, it’s probably less daunting to chat to them too and find out what their workplace pays. With established industries it is quite common for companies offering similar services to pay comparable rates for similar jobs in their organisations. Use that knowledge to help your conversations with your own colleagues.

Regardless of whether you are able to get information from your peers from other companies or not, start the conversation with colleagues you actually get on with and in general terms first and foremost. The rule that people who care about you will try to help you applies here as much as it applies in any other setting. Let them know your reasons for asking and accept that they might not want to tell you what they are making – if that’s the case, you should let them be, not hold a grudge and ask somebody else. Always bear in mind that your immediate colleagues are under no obligation to tell you anything, but if they do, it’s a two way street and you should be comfortable discussing how much you are making with them.

If your colleagues are up for the discussion, feel free to disclose your other research (anonymous figures of course) in addition to your own salary because it might help them too. It happened to me more than once that where I was pushing for a higher salary for myself, I found out that somebody else is underpaid and through the discovery motivated them to also ask for more.

This ‘why’ also applies to changes in your career – side stepping, entering new industry or just moving from a department to department.

What not to do

Although in many countries your right to discuss compensation is protected by law, you should always remain culturally aware and avoid acting in a cavalier or insensitive manner. If you read through the reasons why your employers might not want you to talk openly about salaries, you will know that poorly handled money discussions can get dirty quickly. You should therefore ensure that any conversations about salaries are away from the open plan office where everybody can hear you, you are not throwing information around that is not yours to throw or which could cause resentment, discomfort or upset, and you are managing your professional presence correctly.

While I recommend that you speak to a small number of colleagues you respect and consider close to you, I also recommend that you do not treat this sensitive conversation like a canvassing exercise. Pick carefully who you speak with and act trustworthy – if you disclose their information without their consent you might just as well fire yourself and start digging your professional grave because this one thing is off the table of the office gossip.

Once you get to discussing your remuneration with your manager or whoever else you need to speak with, you should not disclose which colleagues you have spoken with within the business and you should most certainly go in with more research done than just the information from your colleagues. You should also keep yourself away from acting in any way that might be perceived as immature, unprofessional or inappropriate, including acting hurt or hurtful over the numbers – stick to the cold facts for this conversation.

So should you really be talking about salaries with your colleagues? Yes, yes you should. But not with all of them.

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