I’ve seen a lot of discussion lately about pay transparency. Some career advisors suggest that we should all share our salary details with one another to help promote pay equity. I understand the goal and broadly agree with the sentiment. But I disagree with the suggested methodology. I don’t think we should openly discuss salary at work.
Before you get upset, allow me to explain my point of view and what I think is a more appropriate course of action. You may still disagree, and that’s your right. (We can still be friends!) But I hope you’ll hear me out.
The primary reason I don’t think we should talk about pay is that it is a multifaceted and nuanced discussion that most people don’t take the time to truly engage in. More often than not, sharing numbers only sparks emotion—and that’s the wrong way to approach any financial conversation.
When we talk about specific numbers, it immediately causes comparison and presumption. People who are earning less feel taken advantage of and quickly jump to conclusions (often inaccurate ones) about why they are in that position. But they usually don’t have all the information. They’re comparing apples to oranges and don’t even realize it.
I’m not saying that gender and racial pay inequity don’t exist. They absolutely do. And yes, the best way to combat it is by sharing information. But I don’t think it should happen at a personal level, because too often the FULL STORY IS NOT SHARED.
There are many, many things that influence salary decisions. Two people who have the same title at the same company may, in reality, do very different jobs. They may have very different performance histories and measurable results. They may have different levels of experience and education. These factors can absolutely create pay disparity that, on the surface, might look unfair but may be totally reasonable.
The same is true when you compare two people with the same title in different organizations, industries, or locations. The circumstances may cause salary discrepancies that are justified. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Elevate Admins, which I think illustrates my point:
For any one individual, the case will never be the exact same. All things will never be equal. You can’t compare an Executive Assistant supporting the CEO of a 400-person Silicon Valley tech start-up to an EA supporting the CEO at an established 20-person design firm in Kansas City. They may both be equally amazing assistants at roughly the same “level” (on paper), but they may have entirely different jobs and skillsets….It would not be unreasonable (or unfair) to expect that the Silicon Valley EA is earning much more than the Kansas City one.
In this example, both individuals are executive assistants by title, but they are not equivalent roles.
I don’t think two people with the same title (even within the same organization) inherently deserve the same pay*. Oddly, titles are often not the most accurate way to gauge what people are really doing. I believe compensation should be a reflection of your value to the organization. If you are better at your job than someone with the same title, you should be paid more. However, I also understand that this adds an element of subjectivity that can be abused.
It’s true that transparency is a helpful tool for identifying and preventing all kinds of abuse. But instead of sharing salary information at a personal level, I believe we are best served by sharing it in an anonymous fashion, along with other data so we can evaluate it collectively and comprehensively.
We should be looking at salary alongside a wide variety of other details: title, education, experience, performance, duties, race, age, gender, location, industry, hours, and more. With all of these details we can make a true apples-to-apples comparison. We can really see what elements are causing pay discrepancies and if they are justified or not.
It’s not as easy as quietly chatting with your co-worker and comparing pay checks. But it’s a far more honest way of evaluating pay equity.
*I realize that this is a moot point for those who work in organizations with firm salary limitations/bands and clearly defined standards for how and when pay changes happen. This kind of standardization is one way to combat concerns regarding pay disparity, but many employees find it limiting and demotivating.