Is It Ever Really OK to Talk About Your Salary?

Libby Kane

When should you talk about your salary?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.

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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.”

  • 2deuces

    The corporate world keeps many secrets. Is it too cynical to think the secrets favor the corporation and not the worker? Take annual reviews and pay. Why shouldn’t we know the ‘Excellent’ employees so we can know who to emulate? For the same job title, does management prefer smart workers who seek additional assignments or 60 hour/week drudges? Is cooperation rewarded or does management prefer lone gunslingers? Is pay based on seniority alone or can I get materially rewarded for creative solutions?

    So, why is this secret? Does management want to avoid awkward discussions when asked to justify ratings? Or worse, do they want to hide discriminatory pay and promotion practices?

    I would like opinions of others on this.

    • Loismella

       I agree that discussing salary can only benefit you.  Then you know where you stand, instead of being in the dark. If you are the lowest paid person and you feel you deserve more, you can take steps accordingly.  Or reflect on WHY you might be the lowest paid.

  • sigmatheta

    Great advice – so helpful

  • Lee R.

    Discussing compensation is federally protected activity, regardless of company policy. Is it in bad taste and likely to cause problems? Absolutely. Is it illegal to be fired for discussing compensation? Yep. 

    • ranavain

       With the caveat that it’s protected to talk about salary *with coworkers.* Sharing outside may be forbidden.

    • Jonathanmyers1979

      I was just about to post the same thing. You can speak about how much you make — tacky as it may be — and if you get the axe, the employer better have their lawyers on speed dial.

  • BD

    Secrets in compensation favor the company more than worker. It can contribute to you being under paid. More people should share their compensation not less.

    • Zktty3

       it is always about the company! manipulations and secrets to favor their own

  • Guest

    What would be the best way to find out if a company is paying a male more than a female when all skills, experiences and education is matched? I would risk taboo in order to be fairly paid.

  • birdiedreams

    If this advice were followed, people would not know about disparities in pay and ask for more when they are being shorted. I am sure the HR managers do think “no good” can come of discussing salaries with your co-workers. They would have to be much more even-handed.

  • Firchn8

    I make 89k and sometimes a bonus.  As a slacker, it don get any better.

  • ShionA

    “…if the lower paid person feels like she works harder…she’ll be demoralized”

    Well, duh. It’s sad, and I didn’t want to believe it for a long time, but there is still gender gap in pay.

    We were becoming very unhappy at our jobs and discussed our salaries, since we were refused raises despite praise of our performance, and found out that less qualified men (who were increasing our workload) were earning significantly more than us. Rather than give me even a cost of living raise, they hired a man with less experience and education for 4k more than what they paid me. A few of us have since left the company and become much happier, as well as brought the issue to the attention of HR, who was actually very receptive, and now they are working to make the job easier on the people left behind. I’d say if you suspect something is amiss, investigate. Staying in the dark and collecting rumors will get you nowhere.

  • Julia

    This is really an outdated way of thinking, in my opinion.  I’m a person who thinks that everything should be laid out there on the table in almost every regard, anyway.  I work for the government and, once you top $100k at our agency, your salary is published on the internet with your name right beside it.  You’d better believe it stirs up the muck — but the muck is there whether you know about it or not.  Whether or not you know that you’re making $15k less than a male colleague who has less experience than you, you’re still out $15k.  And when you go to apply for the next job (particularly in the government where the hiring managers can see all of the salaries), that salary difference is going to follow you throughout your career.  At least if you know about it, you can attempt to do something about it.  Hurt feelings aside, hiding salaries only benefits the bosses.  

  • SR

    I have to strongly disagree with this article. One of the most empowering things women in their twenties (aka, me and my friends) can do is become comfortable with money — ALL parts of money. This includes discussing salaries, rents, health insurance costs, all the things our parents never taught us about in detail but that really matter in our lives now. In a society where women are still systematically underpaid for our work, and where women are taught to sit back and “be nice” lest we ruffle other peoples’ feathers, it is absolutely crucial for us — starting as early as possible — to fully and confidently take control of our money. And this includes discussing compensation.

    Imagine a group of young men in suits, drinking beers at a bar and teasing each other about the size of their bonuses last year. Now imagine a group of young women doing the same thing. The societal norm dictates that the men are being confident; the women are being tacky. That has to change, and the only way it WILL change is if us young women talk about it loudly and boldly until it becomes normalized.I will add the caveat that there’s always a time and a place, and discussing salaries with current coworkers is tricky. But former coworkers or current friends? It shouldn’t be any more taboo than sharing doctor recommendations or, I don’t know, cell phone plan information. If young women listen to articles like this, we’ll never become comfortable with talking about money. And if we never get comfortable with talking about money, we’ll never be able to learn from each other and empower each other (and ourselves) to own our financial lives.

    TL;DNR: fu*k the patriarchy et al.

    • Creolebelle

      Great comment. I totally agree with you. Yes, the company or society might find it discomforting, but we deserve to know.

      Thankfully I work in a field in which everyone’s salary ranges are standardized and public information, so there is no question about the numbers.

      • Dela

        I came to this website and discussion because I am in a bit of a pickle. I am 30 yrs old and very miserable at my current assistant property management “job”. I had an interview today after scouring the internet (glassdoor, careerbuilder, etc.) for comparable salaries for the few details I was told beforehand about the position. I was told it would be a legal clerk in the legal department of a property management company. I am apprehensive because the offer was made for $9,000 less than what I would currently be making IF my hours were not cut back to less than 30 hrs a week (as an annual salary). Granted, this position has health insurance, but I don’t consider myself to be at entry-level salary-wise OR experience-wise. It seems strange to me that the value of the position is this low, and I am seriously considering asking for at least $6,000 more or walking away from the offer. I am supposed to have a second interview next week, and I am also worrying if I missed my opportunity to raise these concerns tactfully. I want to know what it is they really expect from an employee, and if this is considered an entry-level job. I am not willing to step back again and pay any more dues for putting up with where I have worked for the past two years, not if I won’t even have much of an opportunity to transition,as was vaguely addressed in my interview today. I truly believe that women do not ask enough for what they want in my generation, and that has been part of the disparity-in-pay problem. Also, as said above, this taboo-culture of not discussing compensation in a meaningful and productive way has hurt many’s self-assessment in the workforce. Am I to truly believe that I think I’m too good for a pay cut for a vaguely described job capacity?? Frying pan into the fire, perhaps??

        • Andrea Galvez

           Dela, I’m not an expert, and I don’t know your exact situation, education, experience, and work history. But unless the job is a different career field, or change in work environment, I would NEVER take a pay cut. Ever. If this is your dream job, that’s one thing, but it sounds like you may not even be that excited about the potential at this new job. If you feel like you would be an asset to their company, and have the experience to back that up, you should definitely negotiate an appropriate pay scale. This is typically done at the time of the actual job offer; way after second interviews. So you haven’t missed your chance if you want to try to ask for more. The best advice ever given to me was to know my worth and not accept anything less. If you ask for more and they say “no” say, “okay” and walk away. If they really want you, they may actually come back with another offer, and you’ll feel like the work you’re doing every day is worth it. They may not come back with another offer, though, and that’s okay, too. If you go to work for less than you deserve, you’ll never be happy with the position.

          Good luck!