Salary transparency has an emotional dark side
When I was in my early twenties, my co-workers and I would ride the subway home after happy hour, and — a little more brave than sober — we’d talk about our salaries as naturally as we’d psychoanalyze our bosses. We weren’t making much.
Some of us were hoping for an edge in our own salary negotiations, sure, but we also hoped our openness would combat pay gaps, and help our colleagues demand equality. I didn’t know it then, but it turns out we were engaging in “salary transparency,” which has grown more popular recently, boosted by egalitarian impulses.
The practice has become especially common among millennials, as we reach a stage of life when we’re experienced enough to merit raises that could separate us from our peers by tens of thousands of dollars, even while performing similar work. Paid-off student loans, guilt-free trips, maybe a Casper mattress (the hybrid kind with the foam and the springs) — all are just a well-executed negotiation or a new job offer away.
This transparency movement has been bolstered by new state laws that punish employers who prevent employees from discussing wages, and enabled by websites that list salaries in various fields, such as Glassdoor. Now, many companies are developing their own salary transparency models.
But while there are plenty of guides to how to be transparent, there’s very little that speaks to the emotional fallout of salary transparency.
Despite all the good intentions, talking with people about our wages has always left me feeling several different kinds of sick.
Hushed conversations after a couple of drinks felt safe, but what about a spreadsheet? Or a conversation with a colleague that you hardly know? Despite all the good intentions, talking with people about our wages has always left me feeling several different kinds of sick. When I shared to help others, I still sometimes felt oddly competitive or grossly superior. When I’d asked my work friends about their salaries to gain information that may help me negotiate a raise, I found that when I heard what I expected — that they made more than me — my frustration grew.
This was strange. I was helping. My friends were helping. I had useful data. Possibility abounded. Yet, I often ended up bitter. What I needed, it turned out, was a guide on how to overcome the emotional awkwardness.
What happens when you just ask
Let’s assume you’re asking people who you trust and with whom you have a relationship. The first thing to remember is that this is a profoundly personal question, tied up with deep and often underexamined emotions and questions of self-worth. Salaries offer us the illusion of status, which can overpower whatever other intentions we have. If not handled delicately, sharing one’s wages can hurt people, or ourselves.
This is especially true because people expect you to return the favor — so if you’re going to ask, you better be willing to share. This means that the “what do you make” conversation is a collision that flings people in opposite directions. “There seems to be essentially symmetric emotions,” Zoë Cullen, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied salary transparency, told me. “If you find out that you’re earning something more than what you think everyone else is making, it seems to have a positive impact. The reverse is true if you find out someone else is making more than you.”
When researchers randomly emailed employees at three University of California campuses to alert them that their and their peers’ salaries had been publicly posted online (as a result of a court decision regarding the state’s “right to know” law), they found that the workers who discovered their wages lay above the median felt no more or less satisfied than they already had. But those who fell short of the median felt worse — and quickly started looking for new jobs.
In 2017, Cullen and UCLA Anderson professor Ricardo Perez-Truglia surveyed over 2,000 employees of a large bank in Southeast Asia, and discovered a similar demoralization. They found that learning you make less than your peers could lead you to work a little less hard — sending fewer emails and, say, leaving at 5 p.m. instead of putting that extra burst of effort in until 5:30 p.m.
To my mind, this means that if you’re going to ask people what they make, you have to commit to two things, as much as I struggled to do this myself: First, if they make less than you, it is your responsibility to encourage them — to help them strategize for better compensation if they want it, advise them on ways to distinguish their work, and praise the good work they do. Second, if they make more, you cannot resent them—instead, use them as inspiration. If you caused the collision, you should manage the fallout.
There was one surprising exception to this scenario, a set of salary information that Cullen and Perez-Truglia found didn’t cause egos to collide. It was about a group that can be especially protective of their own status: managers. If an employee learned about the income of a person several tiers their senior, they often worked slightly harder — perhaps inspired by a glimpse of what was possible at the company.
So, if you think you — and maybe more importantly, they — can stomach the conversation, consider asking a superior their salary. And if you’re a manager, consider being less secretive.
Ask about raises, not hard numbers
Say you’ve decided that the tensions aren’t worth what you gain from knowing one more salary figure. There is other useful intel to seek.
Cullen suggested, instead of inquiring about someone’s base salary, ask about their percentage raises over their time within the company. That way, you get useful information for a negotiation — “I know a 10% raise is common here, but a 30% raise is possible” — without the awkwardness of sharing personal numbers.
The cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand, author most recently of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, suggested poking around about what the person thinks the salary range is for your title. This enables you to conspire together, and lets you use the figures they mention to explore possibilities — without forcing them to reveal more than they’re comfortable with. If they choose to share in the course of these conversations, that’s their call — but, again, be aware that politeness may require you to reciprocate.
Gelfand also recommended quizzing folks about other institutions: “How much do you think they make over there, ballpark?” You could ask this of colleagues at your current company, who may have intel from inside their own network. Though you could also try asking someone at that other company. People don’t act as competitively when they aren’t, well, competing.
The power of anonymity
A few weeks ago, while talking about salaries over beers with a journalist friend, I received a link. It was to a spreadsheet that showed the income figures of people in our industry. But while it listed the publication and years of experience, it included no names, not unlike the one recently created by Microsoft employees, as well as lists started by the Ask a Manager blog, museum workers, and adjunct professors.
Meghan Morris, a financial reporter, started the spreadsheet when a salary negotiation failed. She told me that she had gone to her then-employer with a handful of data she’d found on wages at competitive publications, but her manager said she’d cherry-picked the numbers. So, Morris decided to expand her sample size. She typed her own salary into a spreadsheet, then told friendly colleagues what she’d done, asking them if they’d feel comfortable sharing theirs, too — no names attached. Some hesitated. But many joined. “The deal with the spreadsheet is that if you see it, you add your number,” Morris says, “and everyone I’ve talked to so far has honored that.” It expanded well beyond that one outlet.
When I got home, I scrolled through the spreadsheet alone at my bedroom desk. I’m sure a range of emotions rippled across my face, ranging from relief to jealousy. But deprived of actual names, backstories, or merits to compare myself with, those concerns felt muted, even though I saw my rung on the ladder far better than I had from my handful of numbers collected from work friends. I could focus on the actual facts, and when I saw what more experienced people made, I traced a trajectory for myself with far greater clarity than before. I wished I had seen it earlier in my career when I doubted whether I could sustain myself in this industry; Morris told me she had felt those fears, too.
Spreadsheets work best when they’re shared far and wide, and not just among the same groups of people. The range of data expands. More people get inspired. And possibly harmful networks lose their hold on information.
When Morris went back again and asked for a raise, her then-employer responded this time by saying it had done its own industry research. It had determined she was reasonably paid. This seemed to be the end of the conversation. But Morris’ findings had validated her concerns. When another outlet recruited her, she left — and used the spreadsheet data to negotiate her salary there.
Or maybe don’t ask
I should confess: As I researched and reflected on how to ask people how much they make, I began to grow even more uneasy with my fixation on these figures.
It started when I read about what happened in Norway. In 2001, after several outlets digitized long-public income records, the Norwegians could suddenly, easily search for each of their fellow citizens’ income online — anonymously. And so they quickly set to ranking their friends by wealth. According to research by Perez-Truglia, they looked up incomes online — of family members, neighbors, dates — more than they did the weather. And in all their tingly voyeuristic bliss, the gaps in happiness and life satisfaction between the rich and less well-off Norwegians grew.
Adding to the depressing conclusions from Norway, former Chief Economist of the U.S. Labor Department Alexandre Mas examined a 2010 program in California that mandated local governments publish city managers’ salaries on the internet. A few salaries were egregious; the one that incited the change almost reached $800,000, fomenting populist outrage. Mas found that after the change, cities decreased managers’ wages by an average of 7%, and the quit rate increased by 75%. Cities then struggled to find qualified candidates for the vital position. Depending on how heavily they value accountability over a community’s economic growth, people’s outrage may have hurt their own interests.
And yet I understand, and have felt these flickers of woundedness and outrage myself. I know that I would’ve done the same as the Norwegians and the Californians. I’d look up people’s income, and I’d get annoyed. Which is odd.
Of course, salary is an absurd indicator of worth. So why do I cling to it, even when it makes me feel terrible?
Perez-Truglia, who grew up in Argentina, attributes it in part to American culture. In Argentina, he told me, if it came up in a conversation that you were rich, “Most people would think, ‘What did you do? Who did you take advantage of?’… Whereas in the U.S., my impression is that there are a bunch of people who say, ‘Oh, if you’re rich, it must be because you did something good because you work hard.’”
This mindset requires that we feel some control over our income: When we invest our worth in our salary, we better feel we can shape it. Perez-Truglia points out the fallacy in this, especially in a country riddled with structural racism, classism, and sexism: “People may overestimate the degree to which your income is under your control.”
But without salary as a measure of worth, at least among us workers, where does that leave us? I can only judge my friends and co-workers by the normal, hazy bullshit — you know, how they act.
So if your plan is to ask people what they make to help yourself get a raise, and you expect that alone will make you feel “better,” keep an eye on your values. Making more can only solve so much.