So, What Is the Deal with Discussing My Salary at Work?


The Spreadsheet

A short time ago, an anonymous spreadsheet began circulating among television professionals. The author was seeking to collect an aggregate salary profile for actors and writers within the industry. This crowd-sourced effort surveyed individual experiences, thus providing a snapshot of current salary information in the industry. They hoped that members of the profession could use this information to support an argument for salary parity. Until recently, shedding any daylight on salary information has been an accepted American taboo. Yet many in the workforce are beginning to buck that trend. When employees are aware of their co-workers’ salaries, everyone is in a better position to be paid fairly. Knowledge is the key to an argument for individual salary increases or better working conditions. Articles on the now infamous spreadsheet hit the presses in late January, and they included eye-opening data on racial and gender disparities. (See Variety, Hollywood Reporter, The Verge and Jezebel) These employees’ efforts to regain control of their careers are being lauded across the internet.

The Message Boards

Salary is currently at the center of a fairly heated discussion on LinkedIn.  A post titled: Should I tell coworkers my salary?  features opinions from contributors across the globe. Unsurprisingly, most of the objections to revealing pay scale to coworkers are from older, mostly male, professionals. They argue that chaos will reign if salaries are disclosed in the workplace. But is there any truth to that argument? Economists have long championed salary transparency. Simply put, salary is the price paid for an individual’s labor. Markets are most efficient when prices are known to the public. Therefore, transparent pay data helps workers make more informed decisions, e.g., which skills to acquire and where to work. In Sweden one can discover anyone’s salary by simply calling the tax department, and the Swedish workforce has yet to implode in fits of jealous indignation. There is thus reason to disregard those who contend that the old taboo is in place for any useful reason. Rather, if we want to create salary parity in the workplace and end the #genderpaygap, we need to be more transparent.

Relevant Laws

Many people actually think it is illegal to reveal your salary to others at work. Some corporations do make threats in order to inhibit discussion. Where does the law stand on the issue? Federal law protects discussions between employees that can be viewed as “concerted activity.” Conversations among coworkers concerning pay and benefits are considered beneficial, and thus would likely fall under the “collective bargaining” umbrella. (See: Pay Secrecy Fact Sheet)

The National Labor Relations Act gives employees 1 the right to:
form, join, or assist any union;
bargain collectively through representatives of their own choice;
act together for other mutual aid or protection;
and/or choose not to engage in any of these protected concerted activities.

The Reality

Although it is protected generally by federal law, and specifically safeguarded in many states, the right to discuss salary is not well understood. Most employers, even those who know better, still discourage the practice. Some employers place warnings in employment contracts that specifically prohibit it. Other companies ask HR representatives to threaten punishment for openly discussing pay.Employers just don’t want us to talk to one another about what we make. They know that they have an advantage if they have information that we lack, and that they will lose this advantage if we disclose our salaries and benefits to each other.


The Takeaway

Most employees still believe they are not permitted to discuss the topic of salary with coworkers. In California, it is currently unlawful to prohibit such discussions. Your employer does not have to tell you what someone else makes, but it is prohibited from retaliating or preventing employees from discussing the topic of salary amongst themselves. Further, with the passage of AB68, which went into effect on January 1, 2018, a prospective employer can no longer ask what your salary was at previous jobs.

In addition to the general secrecy surrounding employee compensation, women are notoriously bad at talking about money, particularly when they are the subject of the topic.  They do not negotiate as hard as men (or at least we haven’t always felt comfortable doing so historically) and thus often shortchange themselves. The good news is that this is changing. Millennials are far more candid about salary and the resulting transparency is a great tool for employees.

Bottom line? Knowledge is power. California employees are empowered to ask these questions. They should use that power, and seek to level the playing field. Women have an additional tool provided by California’s strong equal pay law, the California Fair Pay Act (SB 358)  Women who discover that a male counterpart is making a higher wage in a similar position have remedies. They may recover the difference in salary, plus a whopping penalty if they take it to court. When it comes to wages, silence is not golden.


1 This protection does not generally cover management positions. If unsure, speak to an attorney to clarify your rights before taking action.
2California recently enacted SB 358 (California Fair Pay Act)  which specifically protects these discussions from adverse action by employers.  If you or your coworkers are retaliated against for discussing salary, you should contact a lawyer immediately.

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