Discussing our incomes with friends and colleagues is considered taboo by many. But, by not talking about salaries, we may be doing ourselves a great injustice, says
Let’s talk about money, specifically our income. It’s one of the great workplace taboos, alongside eating someone else’s yogurt in the office fridge.
As a nation we tend to hold our salary quite tightly to our chests, in a closed fist, on the off chance someone has the audacity to ask us exactly how much we make every year. It’s a bit rude, a bit unheard of and a little bit unnerving, as though there is something sinister in their questioning.
Aside from perhaps your partner and your best friend who may have been allowed into the inner circle, would you feel comfortable having a frank and open discussion about your finances? You wouldn’t be alone if you balk at the idea of laying your salary on the table for all to see and potentially question.
Interestingly enough, we have few issues detailing our childcare costs, our mortgage, rent or how much our car loan sets us back a month. When it comes to highlighting that end of year figure, regardless of its size, many of us are yet to have the conversation possibly because of embarrassment, or the fear of judgement. I’ve never shared my salary with friends, nor them with me. I don’t know how much my brother makes and I would be hesitant to go into the nitty gritty of my income with anyone other than my other half.
My reluctance comes from a deep, inherited belief that finances are simply something we don’t talk about.
In a past life, I worked in the public sector. My salary was determined by grades and scales and published for the world to calculate my income.
Now as a self-employed writer, my finances are a perfect secret as the life of a freelancer is obscure and sometimes penniless. The vagueness protects me from delving into the conversation of how much I make a year, which in truth is a fluctuating rollercoaster of wordcounts and checking my bank balance month by month.
For Beth Kilkenny, it wouldn’t bother her at all to have this in-depth discussion. Working in the public sector makes the transparency of salaries easier. Knowing everyone’s pay however, says Beth, “can lead to resentment at times, when you think someone is getting paid too much for what they’re doing.”
In general, she sees it as a good thing but can understand how our ability to honestly have this discussion is hit with a barrier as it’s not something we’re ordinarily comfortable with.
“The idea that it’s rude to ask has been ingrained in us all. I remember once finding out that someone was getting paid a good bit more than me in a private company doing the same job. I was made to feel more to blame for finding out and saying to the boss, “This isn’t really fair.”
Maria Vagiano is adamant and clear she would never share her salary after an uncomfortable experience in a past, high octane work environment. She says: “I made the mistake once and colleagues were jealous. I used to work in investment banking and worked long hours. The stress was incredible. I worked on million-dollar accounts, never had a lunch break, even a toilet break was frowned upon. Colleagues stopped talking to me because I was on a good wage. They only saw how much I earned and not how much I worked for that salary.
“The salary did not justify the job or the massive effort I put in.”
There is an issue which looms large for most of us who are reluctant to divulge our pay. That of judgement. Our pay should not be a benchmark for our worth, but we have managed to tie it up as such. We often attribute success with hard work and ability, which we acutely link with monetary gain.
The downside to this is that it can lead to perverted bias and judgement as we balance our finances against our achievements to that of others. And vice versa. High income earners are naturally more private as to their salary as jealousy and judgement can sit on the surface.
Jen Byrne designs and makes teething jewellery for parents and babies with her home run business Corlily. She doesn’t mind discussing finances but prefaces this with, “I think it’s because I honestly don’t make much. I know I’ve said it to friends, but they wouldn’t be as forthcoming to be fair. They would be on much higher salaries. It seems like people who have more money don’t want to justify themselves as to what they do or don’t spend their money on. It’s a touchy subject. I also wouldn’t ask someone what they’re on. I don’t think that’s right. I guess everyone on either end feels judged somehow.”
We can easily overestimate our performance and contribute it to financial gain or, likewise, underestimate the performance of colleagues in comparison to ourselves. This is a dangerous game as it plays us against each other. The question of pay unfairness is widespread and can negatively affect our rational thinking when validating our salary in comparison to colleagues. Objectively comparing our income with that of the person who sits next to us for eight hours a day has its benefits, however, especially in a society where the gender pay gap sits at 14%.
Áine Crilly, of The HR Elephant, believes the fear of the unknown is what stops us in our tracks when divulging that all important figure. “Women in the workplace are afraid if they verbalise their salary to highlight a higher pay rate than a colleague, that it will stir the pot and then risk the possibility of losing that figure. Essentially, the unknown ensures they remain silent.”
Talking about our wage has an added advantage of not only addressing the gender pay gap but also knocking the balance of power out of the hands of employers and back on to a level playing field for employees. Pay can vary unfairly and unpredictably, making it difficult but important to challenge the established averages and strike a balance.
Crilly recognises the pay rise process is a very grey area in the workplace. “A causation factor of different rates of pay could be the length of service for example,” she says. “We have a misconception of what is construed to be the ‘norm’ or a socially acceptable rate of pay.
“We struggle and unfortunately do not have the natural ability to speak up or query what our value is worth. That magical figure remains hidden in many businesses.”
Essentially, we hide behind the idea that discussing our finances is taboo. If it remains a private issue between us and HR, we may be doing ourselves an injustice. Leaving our pride behind, opening the doors to this discussion can be a positive one as pay disparity is challenged.
Crilly says: “It is only with educating our society to speak up, be heard and close the pay gap by demanding transparency that we will ensure we can vocalise what we earn and be proud of it. Since gender inequality can exist everywhere, it is intrinsic to encourage the gold standard for companies to strive for in gender equality and diversity.”