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Surprising Dangers of Talking Pay at Work

Surprising Dangers of Talking Pay at Work

By Jen Hubley Luckwaldt,

We all know our employers would prefer that we not discuss our salaries with coworkers. But should we do it anyway? And if we choose to discuss pay, is there any way for our companies to stop us?

The answer on both counts is no, according to Stacey Carroll, compensation expert for online salary database

First and foremost, it's important to know that employers cannot stop you from discussing your pay if you choose to do so.

"Employers who try to prohibit employees from talking about pay really set themselves up for potential exposure to violating the National Labor Relations Act," Carroll says. This legislation dates back to the 1930s and gives employees the right to discuss their work conditions, even if they don’t belong to a union.

Still, talking salary might be a bad idea -- for you, not your company. Here are four ways talking about your pay can come back to haunt you.

1. It's Demoralizing for You and Your Colleagues

"It can be very demotivating if you're very concerned about everyone else," Carroll says. "The best piece of advice is to focus on yourself and your own career path and growth, instead of trying to compete with everybody else."

Carroll advises workers to concentrate on what they can do to have a positive impact on their pay, not about what a coworker is making.

2. You’ll Draw Conclusions Based on Incomplete Information

It's nearly impossible to make one-to-one comparisons between employees. Everyone's circumstances are different.

"If you're talking about pay with people that you work with at your same company, those individuals may be compensated differently based on the job they have or their previous experience or their education or maybe some specific certification," Carroll says.

Outside of your workplace, it gets even more complicated, because organizations have different budgets and philosophies about pay. Salaries also vary depending on the industry and the size of the company.

3. Your Friends May Feel Forced to Lie to You

When it comes to pay, it's hard to know whom to trust.

"The problem with talking about pay with other individuals is that it may or may not be reliable information," Carroll says.

For instance, a coworker might lie about his salary to make himself look more successful or as part of a power play, she says. Even if your office buddy is 100 percent truthful, you'll filter the information through the lens of your relationship, which won't help you make good decisions about your position.

4. The Information May Hurt Your Chances of Getting a Raise

Managers are seldom persuaded by an employee comparing himself to his coworkers, Carroll says. Instead of talking about how much your neighbor makes, arm yourself with facts, Carroll advises.

Salary databases like and other third-party sources can provide more reliable information than water-cooler gossip, and they take into account variables -- such as education, experience and skills -- that can be missing from anecdotal information.

Carroll encourages employees who are unclear about how pay decisions are made at their companies to talk to their managers or to HR about the pay structure. She suggests asking questions such as:
  • Do we have a salary range for this position?
  • What is my maximum earning potential in this job?
  • How do people move through the salary range?
  • Is movement based on longevity or performance?
  • Are there certain skills or certifications I can earn that would help me earn more money?
The goal of the conversation is two-fold: to gather information about the company's compensation plan and to demonstrate your fitness for a promotion and/or raise.

"You never know,” says Carroll. “It may turn out that based on all the criteria that the company has set out, that person truly is underpaid, and that might be a positive outcome for that employee."

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