Talking about money at work. Let's discuss

Is it still taboo?

Money Talks
(Image credit: Rex)

Is it still taboo?

In Partnership with Neutrogena®

It doesn't matter where you work, the same unwritten rule about not talking to your co-workers about pay seems to be embedded into all of our minds. It can cause conflict, they'll tell you. It's unprofessional, your mind will say.

In fact, talking about money in general isn't all that done. Amusing when you think of how open we can be about our private lives, right?

But, just how important is workplace transparency? And should people's rights be protected if they're discovered to be talking about it - because yes, some people have been fired for this kind of thing. It's basically an unwritten gag rule.

Some studies, including one undertaken by the University of California, have seen that employers do have an incentive for their workers keeping mum about their pay, because pay transparency meant those who were paid lower than the average felt dissatisfied and started looking elsewhere.

But surely that's better than being stifled and falling victim to wage discrimination because of your gender, race or simply because you didn't ask for more. Here, we ask if salary transparency should be considered a social justice issue...

Why we should all be talking about money at work by Digital Features Editor Delphine Chui 

I brought this subject up at lunch with three female friends because, if I'm honest, I was on the fence.

It didn't take long for them to start listing all the cons of knowing your peers' salary.

'Imagine knowing exactly what the person next to you gets paid on payday? It could be so demotivating,' one woman said.

'I'd be angry if I knew that my work equivalent was on more than me,' another answered. 'And, what would knowing even help? The company will just make up some reason as to why you don't deserve the same wage and then things would be really awkward.'

And, it was after that conversation, shrouded in suspicion, cynicism, jealousy and competitiveness that I realised, actually, we do need to start talking about it.

Talking to them about my looming pay rise conversation, they advised me, 'you want to ask for more than you want because [employers] definitely won't match that - but don't go too high or they might not take you seriously and will just say 'no'.

If office politics were bad, pay rise politics were worst.

Imagine if we didn't need to waste our time and energy playing this constant game of compromise?

I think knowing a 5K bracket of what you should be earning is extremely healthy because it helps you understand what you deserve and what you're aiming towards.

Yes, it wouldn't be a comfortable situation to know how much everyone on your team was earning but if you found out you were on less than your counterpart, wouldn’t it make you ask yourself, 'What do they do more that I'm not currently doing?'.

It's worth noting that there are exceptions like people who may not necessarily be more qualified than you but have been at the company longer.

But what it would do is filter out the people who get paid more simply because they are braver about asking for more money. If the dialogue were more open, surely it would be less awkward?

I'm not saying we should all go around with name badges featuring our annual salaries but if someone asks you what you earn, we shouldn't gasp in horror and quickly change the subject.

We've already seen the positivity created by exposing the gender pay gap through salary transparency. And when plumbing company Pimlico Plumbers leaked everyone's salary during a social experiment for a fairer system, its company boss Charlie Mullins said that he felt transparency resulted in a much better working environment (despite high tensions at first).

Any disgruntled or unmotivated employees finally knowing, and asking for, what they deserve to be paid would obviously result in a happier workforce which surely results in a more productive one, too?

However, this does depend on how responsive your company is to equality and fair pay – but surely we want this to be the rule, and not the exception, for everywhere someday?

Why we shouldn't be talking about money at work by Entertainment Editor Lucy Pavia 

Back when we were both in our early twenties and had been working in dogsbody jobs at different media companies for just over a year, my friend Alex met me for an after-work drink with a stricken look on her face. A few days before she'd been offered a job at a rival company and had gone into her boss's office to resign. The rival company was offering more money, she told the boss. The boss said she didn't want to lose her from the company and offered her a 2K pay rise to stay. She liked where she was working – plus a pay rise of that kind felt pretty momentous at the time – so she agreed to stay and turn down the job offer.

Then she went out for lunch and told her workmate the whole story.

The workmate, now aware that my friend was being paid 2K more than him, went into the office the next day to complain and demand a pay rise too. The boss was so cross that this information had got out she immediately rescinded the 2K offer. Nothing had been signed and my friend had already turned down the other job.

I think you can guess the moral of the story here. Setting aside the galling fact that women still earn less than men across the board, unless you work in the type of law firm or civil sector job where salary increases are uniform and open, many complicated factors can affect the salary you're on. You may or may not have been poached with a competitive pay packet, for example. You may have haggled hard when you were offered the job, or simply have been employed pre-recession, before many entry-level salaries took a nosedive.

Pushing your boss for a pay rise is a productive way to ensure you're paid what you deserve, but finding out what your colleagues earn is likely to breed more resentment than anything else. This isn't just because Brits hate talking about money (though I must admit I do).

A few years ago another friend accidentally discovered that her hapless colleague was earning 5K more than her. The knowledge of this did little more than eat away at her motivation and colour their working relationship. I can understand the argument that if everyone's pay is public business then we'll level the playing field, but I'm not sure casually comparing notes with your colleagues is the best way to do it. Inevitably one person will leave the conversation feeling embarrassed, the other cross.

In April this year companies with over 250 employees will be obliged to publish their gender pay gap. Like many others, I'll be interested to find out who are the worst offenders. There need to be more measures and structures of this kind in place to ensure people are paid the salary they deserve. But idle talk around the water cooler? No thanks.

Psychologist and CEO of Ros Taylor Company, Ros Taylor, says 'I do think talking about what we earn is still taboo.'

'The whole business of money can divide friends and create enemies. It's often not about the money itself but what it symbolises: success versus mediocrity. And of course, if you discover someone doing the same job as you is being paid double, you are entitled to a rage response. However sensitivity around the issue should not stop transparency.'

'If companies are paying people differently, they should make it apparent why. There should be open criteria for salaries so that employees are incentivised to go for promoted posts or volunteer for extra tasks. If men are better pay negotiators, then women need to acquire these skills as a matter of urgency.'

And career consultant Sherridan Hughes says talking finance, in general, is not done. 'It's very un-British,' she declares. 'While openness should be encouraged, and if all is fair and equal, there is no reason for secrets, often discussion of salary is not viewed favourably by employers. Usually this is because someone has negotiated a sneaky rise and is thus earning more than others, which when discovered can lead to resentment.

'It should obviously be equal pay for equal work; if someone has additional responsibilities, specialist skills or long service, then there may be a justifiable reason for them earning slightly more. And, of course, keeping quiet allows secret deals to be made and inequalities to develop; few people would advertise a pay rise if awarded on the condition that they keep it under their hat!

'There seems to be some debate about whether women really are paid less or whether they simply do not go for the higher paid jobs; when jobs are advertised, they do not state women £x and men £y! However, men may be less embarrassed and shy about negotiating the higher end of a pay scale – they may over-estimate their value whereas women may tend to under-estimate their worth.

'Stereotypically, men tend to be more realistic, objective and tough-minded, and they may therefore be more likely to value tangible rewards, whereas women may be more concerned about intrinsic satisfaction and may prefer some sense that their work is worthwhile.'

What do you think?