Friday, May 09, 2014

Let’s talk salary…Or let’s not.

There’s a job-related Q&A on that I look at occasionally, and a recent one was about whether talking about your pay and benefits can be rightfully considered a firing offense.

The person sending in the Q wrote that there was rumor going around that new hires were being paid more than old hands were making:

I asked a few friends and they are afraid to talk about it because HR has told us not to discuss our financial and benefits information due to confidentiality issues and we can be fired if we do. I was told if I talk to anyone else about my pay or theirs, I will lose my job. Is that right? Is it confidential? Can they fire me for finding out we aren't paid the same? (Source:

It does strike me as ridiculous that someone couldn’t disclose what they were making to someone else, in a kind of a you-show-me-yours-I’ll-show-you-mine sort of way. That said, I don’t recall ever telling someone else what I made, or having them tell me what they were paid.

On the other hand, I can see why it would be verboten (or at least frowned upon) to disclose what someone else makes.

Many years ago, when I came across the salary list for my company, I didn’t tell anyone. Except for one data point. Which I shared with my friend and colleague, Tom.

I came across this treasure trove of information in completely innocent fashion. In those pre-personal computer days, the workers did their computer-based work in a a communal terminal room, where dumb, mostly paper-based, terminals were connected to the company’s remote mainframe.

People would often leave printouts next to the terminal they were using, and it was considered fair game to browse through them.

Our business entailed modeling and simulations, so most of the printouts contained nothing more than results, reports, and something called Xtasks, programs written in our proprietary language, XSIM.

One day, I stumbled upon a fantasy roll-play script that one of the techies had been involved in after hours. (No thanks!)

Then, one evening, while waiting for a model to compile, I thumbed through the paper stack next to me. And came upon a report that showed the salaries of all employees.

At first, I told myself. “I can’t look.” Then I told myself, “I can look for 15 seconds.” Then I said, “Well, I can read through it while I walk down the hall to slip it under the door of the goofball in accounting who’d left it out.”

The only figure that stood out was that of my boss’ boss, which stood out because, while it was a lot more than I made at the time, was still pretty low. (When I got home, my husband told me to “get out of a company where that’s all the head guy makes.”)

Anyway, that was the figure that I shared with my colleague Tom, and which we had a good chuckle over, both because it was a) so low, and b) seemed like over-pay for what the guy actually did.

In any case, it wasn’t as if I had gone looking for the information. It just landed in my lap, more or less. And I didn’t go broadcasting it.

A few years later, at the same company, senior management told the handful of employees who’d gotten a bonus that year that they couldn’t tell anyone.

I pointed out two flaws in this strategy: a) that they couldn’t exactly prevent anyone from complaining about the fact that they didn’t get a bonus; and b) that, since senior management was going around office-to-office to give out the few bonus checks that were being delivered, it would take about 10 seconds for everyone to figure out who got the bonuses, anyway. Which is, indeed, what happened. (My other point to the powers that were was that, if they couldn’t stand up in front of the entire company and justify why they were giving bonuses to these ten employees, they shouldn’t be giving them bonuses. Not that everyone would agree with who got what, but management really should have been able to articulate a public rationale…)

The A to the Q on, by the way was:

Many employers have policies that discourage employees from sharing a variety of confidential information, including wages and benefits. Violating the policy could lead to discipline or even termination of employment…. Often these policies are found in the company’s employee handbook. You may have received an employee handbook and even signed a document in which you agreed to comply with the company’s policies.

[But] just because a policy is included in the handbook does not necessarily mean it is lawful.

In fact, the NLRB has come down on the side of employees being able to talk about their wages and working conditions. However:

…Employees should be careful not to improperly access computer or paper documents to find out salary information because this may be a valid basis for termination.

Hmmmm. I really didn’t improperly access that paper document. It was just lying there, and I innocently picked it up…

I have seen employees get all bent out of shape because they found out, or assumed they knew, what someone else made. There are a number of reasons why there are wage and salary differentials, so it’s probably best to zip the lip on revealing too much.

I will say, however, that the best bit of advice I ever heard on the subject came from a manager who once told me, “You should pay your employees as if everyone knows what everyone else is making.”

He wasn’t arguing for equality, or full disclosure. Just that folks should be paid fairly, and that you shouldn’t be trying to screw or pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. Fewer disgruntled employees that way…

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