How to talk about your salary with your coworkers

Illustration: Ashley Siebels

I recently got a call into the Bossed Up podcast hotline from Nicki. The message she left was a little garbled, but the basic gist is this: her boss was livid with her for discussing her salary at work.

Now, like a true Bossed Up community member, Nicki had negotiated her salary, so her starting hourly rate exceeded some of her colleagues, who were doing the same work for less. So naturally, when her colleagues found this out, they were pretty upset, too.

In this particular case, it just so happens that Nicki wasn’t sharing her salary at work. Her boss was incorrect in her accusation and her coworkers had found out some other way. Regardless, it got Nicki wondering: was there anything explicitly wrong about discussing salary at work, after all? If she had been the one to share her salary, was it fair for her to be reprimanded for it?

Can I talk about salary at work?

In a word: yes. As HR company Insperity put it in a recent blog post:

Can your employees discuss their salaries or wages with their co-workers? Yes. Even if you have a company policy against it? Yes.

Turns out, the freedom to discuss your salary at work is a protected right under federal labor law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 protects your right to discuss the conditions of your employment, including issues related to safety and pay, even when you’re not protected by a union.

The act was intended to protect collective bargaining activities like finding out what your colleagues are making, so you’ll have a stronger case for negotiating your own pay.

In fact, companies that have policies on the books forbidding such discussions risk getting it trouble with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent federal agency that exists to protect the rights of private sector employees. In 2014, President Barack Obama took executive action to bring added visibility to this issue and formally forbid pay secrecy policies amongst federal contractors as well.

Why talk salary with coworkers?

Talking about salary with colleagues can be uncomfortable, since there’s such a taboo about discussing money matters, but it’s an important step towards achieving equal pay for equal work. Until pay transparency becomes the norm, we can help each other out by sharing what we’re making with our colleagues to more easily spot discrepancies and discrimination.

One barrier, however, stems from how we think of our own financial worth. Too many people I talk to wrongly consider their salary a reflection of their inherent worthiness, a statement about their skills, experience, or value. I’m tempted to shout, “It’s not about you! It’s about market economics! It’s about the position you’re in!” At the end of the day, if we can all detach our self-worth from our salaries a bit more, it’ll become easier to talk turkey with our colleagues.

Because the more secrecy swirls around our compensation conversations, the less power we all have as individual workers. Knowledge is power. So when we can talk honestly about pay with colleagues – especially our white male colleagues who may benefit from privileges they’re not even aware of – the more we can identify wage discrimination when it’s happening to us.

Ok, but how do I talk about salary?

Asking about money outright can be tough, so one trick I’ve picked up along the way is to ask for your colleagues to confirm or deny. For instance, you might volunteer your salary first and ask “Does that sound about right to you?” by way of comparison.

Or, let’s say you’re interviewing for a promotion to become a manager. You might ask a fellow manager about the kind of salary you should expect by saying, “I’m seeing salaries for this kind of position ranging from $65,000 to $70,000 – does that seem accurate to you?”

This way, even if your colleague isn’t comfortable sharing their salary outright, they can help you identify if your expectations are on point or way off.