I’ll Show You My Salary if You Show Me Yours

Secrets. By Salvatore Barbera
Secrets.  By Salvatore Barbera

Human resources departments and those who handle their data are expected to guard the best secrets.  But one of the biggest secrets is ironically an anti-secret.  Did you know you’re allowed to talk openly about your own pay?  Don’t tell HR.  It’s embarrassing (for them).

This article in Atlantic.com by Jonathan Timm from July 2014 draws attention to the dubious practice of pay secrecy.  I’m not talking about the employer’s obligation to keep your pay information confidential.  Rather it’s an article about employees being obliged to keep their pay a secret from one another.  These obligations are referred to as “gag rules.”

For the uninitiated, there is no meaningful moral obligation for employees to refrain to talking about their salary with each other.  On the contrary, in the United States there are regulations that protect employees’ rights to discuss working conditions with one another.  It’s on the edges of the legislation that allows employees to collectively discuss their lot in life, bargain for improvements, and possibly unionize.

In that context the moral judgement should be obvious.  Those handling the file at human resources desks are not allowed to advance anti-union behavior, and as professionals they should always advise against such policies.

The article describes personal experiences of people struggling with these fake rules.  What is notable is how people presume these gag rules are legitimate, employers and employees alike.   Gag rules create a sense of guilt about whether we should put ourselves ahead of the employer.  They make us self-consciousness about whether we’re being greedy.  We’re embarrassed to talk about whether we’re losers for being the lowest paid person.  Raising the topic with colleagues is “akin to asking about their sex life.”

These emotions are powerful stuff.  But then, that’s how bullying is done, isn’t it?

Above and beyond beef-and-taters union issues, gag rules are also wrapped up in discriminatory pay practices.  That is, it is easier to under-pay women and visible minorities or play favorites if employees don’t talk about their pay.  A woman named Lilly Ledbetter complied with the gag rule at Goodyear for nearly three decades and ultimately found out she was under-paid.  Ms. Ledbetter sued and lost because she did not complain about being under-paid within the first 180 days of her first paycheck.

Ironically, employers share pay information with each other all the time.  They’re called compensation surveys.  They happen on an annual basis (if not monthly), and they are delivered through specialized consulting services.  The work is done under careful checks and balances that ensure data privacy and keep the whole process fair and legal.  Those who have worked on such surveys are proud of their work.  I used to do compensation surveys myself, and I was good at it.

One of the reasons why compensation professionals love doing this work is because it helps make pay fair and equitable.  Looking down from the ivory tower, human resources people know that perceived unfairness in pay creates discord.  So “good” employers put some work into getting it right, behind the scenes, in a kind of lab environment where social justice is organized by experts.  But really we’re just trying to stay one step ahead of the riff-raff.

Let’s face it, employees and the social justice movements they created are the rightful owner of this dialogue.  Gag rules and compensation surveys are just the cultural appropriation of working class politics.

4 thoughts on “I’ll Show You My Salary if You Show Me Yours

  1. One of the more famous “pay secrecy” stories comes from hockey. When Gordie Howe was in the early stages of his career with the Detroit Red Wings the practice then was that players were not allowed to tell each other how much they were making. Howe was told that he was the highest paid player on the team. He didn’t know how much the other players were making, so he was unable to check the veracity of the claim by Red Wing’s management. Turned out he was the 3rd highest paid player. Salary transparency was one of the main demands when the NHLPA started. >


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