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How Keeping Salaries Secret Makes Employees Complicit in Wage Inequality

How Keeping Salaries Secret Makes Employees Complicit in Wage Inequality
Mon, 4/8/2013 - by Jen Doll
This article originally appeared on Atlantic Wire

My dad once gave me some really good, if anecdotal, advice. He said that the main things that couples fight about—the issues that break people up, even—are money, children, and sex. So always be really clear about those things in relationships, he said. Make sure to communicate what you want, and listen to what your partner wants, too. This advice has seemed pretty accurate in my experience, when people deal with one another, couples or not. Especially when it comes to money.

But the fear of talking about money quite possibly makes money issues, including pay equity, worse. Maybe because, in the workplace, as Irin Carmon points out in an excellent piece in Salon today—"The Case for Telling Everyone What You Make"—there are actually often strictures placed to prevent this from happening. Carmon's piece deals specifically with the issue of talking about salaries in the workplace from a gender perspective. She writes,

According to a survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 19 percent of employees’ workplaces formally prohibit discussing wages and salaries, and another 31 percent said it’s discouraged. That survey’s analysis pointed out that the wage gap in the federal government, which has high levels of pay transparency, tends to be narrower than the private sector’s, though that figure is skewed by the fact that higher earners in the private sector – say, in finance – sit atop a much higher range and tend to be mostly men.

In order to combat this, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which is scheduled for a vote in the Senate next week, includes a provision that would make it illegal for companies to act against employees who talk about their salaries.

But it's odd that employees have been complicit in this "ban on money talk," whether formal or not, for so long, because the people who are most harmed by not talking about compensation tend to be the employees themselves. It's in your employer's interest for employees not to share their salaries, as those employees are likely to find out things that will make them harder to work with. That is to say, harder for the employer to work with. If an employee finds out that he or she is making far less than someone who does less, or that he or she, perhaps, is vastly underpaid in general, that employee may argue for a raise, and may have a point. Companies fear this disruption in the general order of things. Why else insist on such secrecy? We've all heard, "It's no one's business what you make." But isn't it, sort of, everyone's business what everyone else makes? That's why we're working. In what other part of life do you go along with being forbidden such key information that's part and parcel of what you do?

But even when talk of money is allowed, for instance, in negotiations and in more general public arenas, many shy away from it, fearful it will make us seem greedy or "money-hungry" or focused on the wrong things. Think about the last time you looked for a job, for instance. Chances are, you went through a series of conversations and interviews without ever hearing or saying a word about money—until finally an offer was made by the potential employer. Yet, you knew what you were expecting from the beginning. Why not save everyone the time and trouble and get it out there from the get-go? (This, sometimes, is why potential employers request "salary estimates" on a cover letter—and yet, those fail to help, really, as one's current job doesn't necessarily have anything to do what one should make at the next, and, further, one often lies in those estimates, either in hopes of getting the interview or to try to make a higher salary.)

A striking thing happened to me in a previous job, where, prior to union negotiations, a list of salaries was shared around the room. A lot of us were horrified, exclaiming that that information shouldn't be public, that it could destroy relationships and certainly imbue people with bitterness or resentment. But, actually, that information was helpful. It reminded us that there were inherent injustices in pay sitting right in front of us—things we would have never known about had the information not been shared.

Even if the Paycheck Act passes, effectively "allowing" employees to share salary information, there's no guarantee that they'll do it, because this is not just a legal issue but a social one. Talk of money is fraught with awkwardness. We're not supposed to ask, for example, what someone else makes, unless we couch it in the most delicate of terms. We're not even really supposed to ask what other people pay in rent, or the cost of one's car or shoes or things—despite that information being, simply, information. Pretty much every time a "sophisticated" person broaches the topic of money, he or she apologizes. But particularly in the workplace—that's about money, isn't it? It's called work for a reason, right?—it's odd and even hypocritical that we've been complicit with corporations for so long, in terms of protecting them from what might be really scary: Everyone knowing what each other makes.

Imagine a world in which all salaries were public. You'd go into that very first interview already knowing what you could expect, not just immediately, but down the road. You'd negotiate without those fears of asking for so little as to be stupid or so much as to be knocked from candidacy completely. You'd do your job, happy in the comfort that you were being paid what you were worth, or, if you were not, you would determine whether you wanted to do something about it, given the information you had. And your employer would be held accountable to certain standards of equal pay for equal work, as well as justifying why, exactly, people were being paid different salaries if they were, because everyone would know if it was otherwise.

What would be so bad about that?

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