Talking salaries is good for employees. So why does the taboo persist? Here's how to shed the salary shame and bring the paycheck conversation to the water cooler.
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Recent results from my very unscientific poll of friends and family about whether or not to discuss salaries with coworkers yielded a very interesting generational divide: When asked if you should talk to your coworkers about salaries, the boomers in my life all gave a resounding no, while the millennials and younger all agreed it's an essential conversation in any workplace. 

My unscientific polling tracks with a 2018 Bankrate survey that showed millennials to be twice as likely to openly talk salaries than boomers, ushering in an end to "salary secrecy." According to Forbes, this new era of salary transparency is a good thing. Employees of companies with salary transparency report feeling less underpaid and have more negotiating power, which works to close the wage gap as younger, marginalized employees feel more empowered to ask for their worth

While we may agree that talking salaries is good for employees, there's still that pesky taboo around actually doing it. Here's how to shed the salary shame and bring the paycheck conversation to the water cooler.

Reject the taboo

Most employees report deciding against talking about their salaries due to the strong taboo around discussing money with coworkers (and even friends and family!). But the fact remains that workers receive better pay and report higher satisfaction with work when immersed in a culture of salary transparency. If the company isn't going to create that culture for their employees, you can create that culture within your working group. 

"I'm king of talking about my salary," says Jacob, a sales manager at a micro-brewery in Texas. He makes it a point to work salary into natural water-cooler conversations with his coworkers when possible. "I'd usually find a way to ask anyone I worked with what they made," he says. But still, Jacob admits that not everyone is as cavalier about the discussion as him. "None of them ever seemed hesitant to discuss," he says. "But I could tell they felt weird about it." 

Reject the taboo and make money talk a regular occurrence. The more you do it with coworkers (and proactively with close friends and family), the easier it becomes. A casual salary conversation around the water cooler could be just the thing to break the company taboo. 

Establish trust

The ability to reject the taboo of salary talk requires a strong level of trust between coworkers. A culture of salary secrecy begets a culture of distrust. Coworkers may wonder why you are asking, especially if they are reluctant to speak. Make it clear why you want to share salaries. Maybe you're both hoping to negotiate a raise and salary transparency can put you on stronger grounds. Maybe you want to create a culture of salary transparency at work, one where all workers benefit from knowing their value. And maybe you just want to feel less alone. 

"The first time I talked about salary with a coworker was when I was promoted to manager at Walgreens," says Jessica Martin, who has since changed careers into public librarianship. She says her new role didn't come with the pay bump she expected, but she also wasn't sure what to expect because no one discussed salaries. But she found an in with her new coworkers in management who empathized with her position. "I was pretty close with my fellow leads at the time and asked if what I was making was actually a fair amount. I came to find out that it was actually a lower rate, especially for the skillset I had." She was able to ask her supervisor for a raise more in line with what the other leads were being paid—and she got it. 

If you're nervous about talking salary (or it's frowned upon in your company), go to those coworkers you know you can trust and start there. 

Know the rules

It's not unheard of for some companies to require salary silence among their employees—not just as a request but as a command. Look at the fine print on your hiring contract and make sure you aren't barred from discussing salary with fellow coworkers. "As a self-employed contractor, there are open discussions about appropriate rates for various services," says Adrien, a musical therapist and school teacher. "I contract with one particular agency who forbids discussion of rates amongst contractors."

If a non-disclosure clause exists in your contract, try negotiating a change to that section before signing. Always check the fine print of any contracts you sign. It's important to note that the National Labor Relations Act does not allow employers to bar employees from discussing wages and working conditions amongst themselves. However, according to Allison Green of Ask A Manager, employers do have free rein to prohibit these discussions during work hours and on office campuses—and they can bar you from talking about your salary to those outside of the organization. 

Before you sign any contracts—or do any talking—make sure your speech is protected so you can talk money with impunity. 

Look at the big picture

Salary transparency isn't just about negotiating better raises—it can mean a closing of the pay gap and bringing gender and racial equity to workplaces everywhere. "The reality is that the secrecy surrounding salaries typically benefits the organization more than the employees," says Kim Elsesser, a senior contributor at Forbes. "When pay is transparent, organizations must be able to justify each employee's salary—thus reducing or eliminating any type of bias." 

For Erica,  a worker at a small, independent media company, salary transparency isn't just about negotiation—it's about being fairly compensated and valued doing work she loves. After the pandemic hit, Erica, like many other workers, found herself taking on more responsibilities and outperforming her previous work without the promise of a raise. "The commensurate compensation just hasn't been offered—even though my supervisor has again been petitioning for a raise for me." Meanwhile, she learned the company was planning to hire for a position that paid more than she made and required less experience. 

"I started discussing my salary with another employee on Slack as we were trudging through a difficult time," says Erica, "First, it was a way to blow off steam." Then it became an impetus to ask for a raise. 

"My father says that I should have another job lined up and threaten to leave if they can't give me a raise," she says. "But there aren't other jobs in my field—and I love my job now. I just want to be compensated better." 

And we're happy to report that Erica has since asked for her raise—and received it.