When It Pays to Talk About Pay

Bob Goldman on

Has this happened to you?

You're at work and bored out of your gourd. What you need to survive is a friendly chinwag with your co-workers. You can't bring up politics. The last time you broached that subject you spent the next week hiding under your desk. And you certainly don't want to open up a discussion about sex -- not if you expect to get home before midnight.

Which leaves the subject universally considered the third rail of workplace conversation -- compensation.

"How much do you make?"

It's a simple question, but ask it and you'll quickly find that your closest teammates would rather tell you about how they are bamboozling the IRS, canoodling with that hottie in IT and embezzling their children's college funds.

Whatever is in their paycheck is top secret. They'll take it to the bank when they're alive, and, when they're dead, they'll take it to the grave.


Which is a problem. You suspect that you're underpaid and you're really unhappy about it, but without knowing how much others in the company are making, you'll never know just how really unhappy you should be.

It is also a problem for a writer and editor at The Washington Post, Janay Kingsberry, who recently published " 'How Much Do You Make?': Here's How To Start Conversations About Pay With Friends, Co-workers and Your Manager."

One strategy for learning the truth about the size of your co-worker's paychecks is to request a departmental meeting on the subject of money, inviting both colleagues and managers. You frame the conversation "as a win-win where everyone learns together."

In creating an open, safe environment, Kingsberry suggests, you can ask softball questions, like "how has covid affected the company's finances?" or "how does the company go about setting pay for different jobs?" This strategy is fine, but it doesn't go far enough. My suggestion is to wait until everyone is numb and then go totally Judge Judy, going around the room, pointing to specific co-workers and demanding to know now much they're paid and why.


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