should I have shared my salary with a coworker?

A reader writes:

I changed jobs recently — my new company is a big, multinational organization comprised of lots of divisions. I recently had a conversation with a friend in a comparable role (in an entirely different division of my company), who asked to meet up to discuss salary. He has been at our company for a long time, and he had an inkling that because he hasn’t moved around much, his salary might be lower than industry standard.

Alison, it was. By a lot. This friend is technically at a higher level than I am (one step up — he manages several people while I only manage one person). But other than his added management responsibilities, we do largely the same work, and it turns out I make about 25{986d44274747a5c76dc1672921bbe0dd933450491f05a8d42739aa242512160b} more than he does. Also, it’s worth noting that I’m probably five years older than him and have therefore had more years to get raises, cost-of-living increases, etc. And I’ve changed employers more frequently, getting more money each time. But he definitely has a “bigger” job than I do, with all my responsibilities and then some, so the fact he’s paid so much less than me seems strange.

He point-blank asked me what I made, and I told him. We had a good conversation, he thanked me profusely for talking about all this with him so candidly, and I think he’s gathering information to make a case to his manager at some point soon for a raise. I trust that he will be discreet with my information.

But here I am … feeling weird. I know there’s a lot of talk about creating greater transparency around pay issues, but the few times I’ve had this conversation with colleagues, we both end up feeling bad, not good (even in this case, when I sense I’m fairly compensated). It feels SO taboo to talk about money with friends and colleagues. Should I have handled this request differently? Was I correct to share my salary with him, or not? Am I at any legal risk with my company for sharing salary info? We always hear that we should be talking about these issues, but we don’t usually get much guidance on how to do it. Thanks for any advice you can offer.

It does often feel taboo to talk about salary … and that is hugely to employers’ benefit and to employees’ disadvantage.

Secrecy around salary is exactly what allows salary inequities to continue unchallenged — it gets much harder to argue that you’re being paid unfairly when you don’t know what colleagues are making, and it gets much easier when you do. And it’s virtually impossible to unearth systemic pay gaps based on race or gender when you can’t compare salary data.

So I think you should feel good about the conversation you had with your coworker, and more people should be having those conversations.

But you’re worried that this could have repercussions for you at work, so let’s tackle that.

At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to “engage in concerted activities,” which includes the right to discuss your wages and working conditions with each other. Employers aren’t allowed to prohibit you from discussing your salary, and any attempts to do so violate the NLRA (which can be surprising to learn, considering how many workplaces have this — illegal — policy).

However, this protection only applies to non-supervisory employees, so it may not cover you (you mentioned you’re a manager). But if your employer ever confronts you about it, you can say something like this: “Oh, I didn’t realize that would be a problem! There’s been such a move toward salary transparency in order to combat gender and racial pay gaps that I hope we’ll reconsider that.” (In other words, turn it back around on them.) Or, since you’re new, you can lean on that — “Oh, I didn’t realize that! In my experience, companies are moving more toward pay transparency. Is that something we’d ever consider?” (Again, changing the conversation.)

If you’re really worried, you could ask your coworker not to use your name when he makes his case for a raise. It’s still useful for him to have the information to use as background if that’s all you’re comfortable with — but it’s far more useful for him to have freer rein with the info if you’re willing to allow that.

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