How to Talk About Money at Work

Imagine this: It’s your first day at a new job. You arrive to a poster-sized declaration of your salary hanging above your desk. You look around and your new co-workers all have the same thing.

Never say never.

While this level of salary transparency is pretty extreme, some companies are inching closer. In a Harvard Business Review podcast on the subject, David Burkus, associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University, says companies are currently experimenting with transparency, and they’re each putting their own spin on it. At Whole Foods, for example, everyone knows what everyone else is paid. Other companies reveal information on what certain positions pay, and you can extrapolate the annual number based on the position’s place in the org chart.

But in most companies, money is still the biggest elephant in the room. Legally, employees can discuss their salaries with co-workers (it’s a “protected concerted activity,” per the National Labor Relations Board), whether it’s break room banter or happy hour fodder.

But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. However, there are ways we can talk about money without getting burned. Consider these five tips for smarter, safer salary conversations:

1. Assess the (Social) Situation

When someone asks what you get paid, don’t just give up the goods. Is he asking you at happy hour after a few drinks following your first day on the job? Or is she inquiring at a private, off-site lunch meeting because she held your position before and has a vested interest in helping you advance? Think about the who, where, when, and why before opening up.

2. Know the Rules and Your Rights

Your boss might encourage open dialogue as part of your company’s culture, and these discussions are technically legal, thanks to the National Labor Relations Board’s 1935 ruling (also known as The Wagner Act). But some states have actually enacted pay secrecy laws—laws that are still in effect—to discourage employees from sharing salary stats. Tread lightly: See below on where your state stands on workplace pay discussions.

3. What’s Your Bottom Line?

You’ve taken a social reading, but what are your motives for seeking pay information? Are you genuinely curious, or do you need to know for your own future negotiation purposes? Also consider how the knowledge of your colleagues’ compensation could change office dynamics, or your relationship with others. What if you’ve underestimated your cube-mate’s pay and find yourself insanely jealous after she shares it? Before you open the doors of conversation, weigh the pros and cons.

4. Stick to Straight Talk

Whether you’re asking for a raise, seeking reimbursement for an out-of-pocket expense, or trying to glean salary data from a colleague, be clear and direct and ask only what you need to know. For a raise discussion, have a concrete ask backed up by recent accolades to bolster your bargaining. If you need to pay out of pocket for items required by your position, be sure to consult the company expense policy before you shell out. Then, submit your request to the correct person with a clear explanation of the charge.

5. Create a Safe Place for Dialogue

Some conversations are best held off-the-record, off-campus, and outside of working hours. If you’re eager to foster a culture of openness, perhaps launch a social club—comprised of colleagues from various sectors and employers—to meet monthly and talk about how to effectively negotiate pay raises, advocate for equal pay, and other work-money issues.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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