How to start talking about your salary with friends and colleagues

Photography by Amelia Dowd
Words by Sunny Chisholm

Sharing is caring.

How much money do you make? It’s quite a loaded question.

If you’re embarrassed to answer this question because you don’t earn much, then don’t be. It’s your employer who should be embarrassed. The fact that they’re responsible for your pay is the reason why there’s a power imbalance working in their favour that gives them greater autonomy.

Looking for more career advice? Subscribe here and we’ll send it straight to your inbox each week.

How about your parents’ salaries? Do you know how much they make? Your sister? Your best friend? Your colleagues? Do you know how much others earn who share your qualifications, expertise and career trajectory? If your answer is no, then it begs the question: How can you truly know whether you’re being paid fairly?

For the generations that came before us, I assume that talking about money was seen as distasteful and awkward because salaries were closely linked to one’s identity and self-worth. That could very well still be the case for a lot of people now, but I recently had an epiphany that my salary is not solely a reflection of my talents, experience or efforts.

It’s a reflection of how much a company is willing to pay for my labour. Often, this number will be on the lower side of what’s “fair”, because private corporations profit from acting in their own best interests before anyone else’s – no matter how many tokenistic employee benefit schemes they use to disguise this fact. (Subsidised gym membership? Bring your dog to work day? Birthday morning tea? No thanks; I’d rather be properly compensated).

In reality, our salaries aren’t about us at all. They’re about the silly little tasks we perform at our silly little desks as part of this silly little system known as capitalism. If your role requires a niche, important and in-demand skill then you’ll probably be compensated very well – regardless of your work ethic, office etiquette or attention to detail. And for those who are incredibly dedicated, relentlessly hardworking and generous with their time, if your role is seen as disposable, you’re probably getting paid peanuts.

The funny thing is, these days talking about money isn’t actually all that taboo. I happily disclose to friends (or anyone who asks) how much I spent on a holiday, the clothes on my back or an extortionate haircut, so why is it that we’re so private about earnings that are largely out of our control? We’re doing ourselves a disservice. The only people we’re protecting by gatekeeping our salaries are those who have the opportunity to exploit us. Simply put, employers can (and do) get away with paying staff less when they don’t talk to one another about salary.

Without a defined salary structure, we’re really just fumbling in the dark until we ask coworkers what they make and use that as something to measure against. If we don’t, we can fall victim to wage suppression and lack of transparency around pay inequity, which disproportionately affects women regardless of merit or seniority. In 2017, Michelle Williams was “paralysed” by the egregious discovery she was paid $1000 to reshoot her scenes in All The Money In The World when the male lead, Mark Walhberg, was paid an enormous $1.5m. Imagine the difference a little transparency around pay could’ve made there.

Pay secrecy limits the information and ammunition available to potential candidates when negotiating their pay package. As a result of this, women often undervalue their market rate and are offered lower packages in comparison to their male counterparts because pay secrecy feeds pay gaps. (Which is not a vibe).

The bottom line is that talking about your salary or freelance rates – with discretion and in the absence of any secrecy clause – allows you to hold your employer accountable for fair pay practices and ensure you’re getting paid what you’re owed.

So how do we normalise wage discussions?

It’s obviously something you want to avoid talking about at the office water cooler, and rather should be a private conversation with a mentor you trust. By opening the dialogue with someone more senior than you, such as a previous manager or someone who helped bring you on, they’re more likely to give you a bigger-picture view of your company’s salary bands which can help them discuss wages in a way that doesn’t make them feel obliged to share theirs.

Alternatively, if you know anyone in your field or workplace who was planning to leave but received a counteroffer to stay, they’d be an incredibly valuable source in terms of getting good market information.

If you want to address the topic with friends, first test the waters by seeing how comfortable they are discussing earning-related topics such as super, savings and investments. If they open up, it sets a precedent for future conversations. It’s also helpful to check sites like LinkedIn and GlassDoor for salary estimates, and then use this as the conversation opener.

And if you do choose to speak about it with colleagues, frame the conversation in a productive way and provide some context as to why it’s illuminating information when shared. The topic at hand goes beyond simply discussing incomes; it’s about making informed financial decisions and creating a fairer workplace for everyone. Also keep in mind that people will be far more comfortable discussing brackets – so lead the conversation by example and share your pay range rather than landing on a hard number.

There’s no denying that it’s hard breaking the stigma around sharing salaries with coworkers. But break it we should. Knowing what other people get paid is instrumental in fighting gendered and racial wage discrimination and improving our working conditions.

There is power in knowledge. Deciding whether a pay package is fair cannot be left up to employers alone.

For more information about pay transparency, head here.

Lazy Loading