Do you know how much your co-workers make? How about your friends?
Money isn’t always the easiest thing to discuss, and when you add in workplace dynamics, it only gets trickier.
Assuming that your office doesn’t expressly forbid discussing pay, who exactly are you allowed to discuss it with? When is it completely off-limits? And how do these rules translate to discussing salary with friends?
We spoke with etiquette experts, recruiters and HR professionals to figure out when it’s appropriate to talk about your salary–and how to do it.
Why Is the Subject of Salary So Touchy?
“So much of who we are is based on what we do professionally, and by extension, what we earn,” explains manners expert Thomas P. Farley (a.k.a. “Mister Manners“). ”In American society, much of the respect we get from others is tied to what we earn.”
But this isn’t the norm everywhere. Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute points out that, in much of Europe, it’s considered rude to ask people what they do for a living when you first meet them. “If you’re able to engage in pleasant conversation, you’re expected to be able to do it without prying,” he says.
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Senning adds that there are tiers of polite conversation, ranging from the most innocuous and widely suitable topics (sports, the weather) to the most intimate topics that you should only discuss with close friends (family and finances).
When bringing up a potentially personal topic, like finances, you never know where the conversation will lead. “Their favorite topic might be real estate problems in lower Manhattan,” says Senning. “Or they might just have been foreclosed on.”
When You Should Steer Clear of a Salary Discussion
If your employer forbids discussing compensation as a rule, don’t test their tolerance. “Worst-case scenario, you’ve violated company policy and may be fired,” says Mark R. Gerlach, a career strategist and former recruiter. But more likely, he adds, your co-worker will tell others what you’ve told him, and management will think that you can’t be trusted with confidential information. “That’s quite a stigma to carry through your career,” he says.
Compensation also isn’t an appropriate topic for chatting around the proverbial (or actual) water cooler. Robert Duchin, who’s spent his career working as a human resources executive, emphasizes that no good can come of casual salary sharing. “If there is a significant disparity between individuals’ pay, and if the lower paid person feels like she works harder, has been there longer or holds a more important job, she’ll be demoralized, at the very least,” he says.
Farley brings up a similar point when it comes to discussing salaries among friends. While broaching the topic with a close friend who you believe is similarly paid might not be the worst thing, talking about salary with someone who makes significantly more or less than you can lead to trouble. He explains that there might be feelings of superioriy or inferiority–and things like choosing a restaurant can become fraught with tension. Case, in point: “Well, of course you can afford that.”