Who isn’t curious about how much their co-workers make? I know I am. So, why is it the norm for no one to talk about it?

Well, for one, many companies actually tell their employees not to, despite this practice being illegal thanks to the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). In a recent article for The Atlantic, Jonathan Timm discusses how he is explicitly instructed to not share his salary with his co-workers in two separate and unrelated positions. He astutely points out that this practice, which arguably prevents some possible workplace tension, also allows for pay discrimination.

And while it makes some sense from a HR perspective why companies don’t want their employees discussing salary (they’re afraid they’ll have to deal with a bunch of people who feel anywhere from annoyed to litigious), ultimately it’s hurting your bank account because you have no idea if you’re being fairly compensated. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Some companies, like Buffer, SumAll, and Whole Foods, are not only completely transparent about their employees’ salaries, they are happy to talk about it. In an interview with Jeff Haden for Inc., Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, discusses the role of salary transparency in his company values.

Something that was definitely very scary for us to do was make all salaries public within the company. We created a formula for how salaries are calculated and added it to our Wiki page for everyone on the team to see. Why? One, we wanted to truly commit to our value of transparency. When we announced it, Joel, our co-founder, emailed everyone and said, ‘I truly believe that transparency breeds trust, that's one of the key reasons for this adjustment.’

It’s always encouraging to read about innovate companies like Buffer, but short of leaving your job to work for a company with similar salary transparency policies, what can you do to help this become the norm? The most obvious solution that comes to mind is gathering some courage, scoping out your workplace environment, and getting ready to start talking about your salary.

But how do you get this conversation started? First off, no one is going to offer up their salary numbers without hearing yours first, so be ready to share. Next, it’s a good idea to heed any overt warnings you may have gotten about broaching this topic. Even though the NLRA makes it illegal to prevent employees from discussing their salary, as Timm notes in his Atlantic article, the law doesn’t really have any teeth and only gives employers a “slap on the wrist.” With that in mind, your best bet is to avoid this murky legal area.

If you haven’t received any open opposition to the idea and you’ve thought about how much you’re comfortable sharing, pick a time when everyone is already thinking about salary to start the conversation. Maybe it’s when the annual standard of living adjustment comes or during performance review season. Approach the subject of how hard it is to know if compensation is fair without salary transparency and see where it goes. You might surprise yourself and find that you’re not the only one curious to know more. And while this might not change the entire culture of your company, it could be the spark that starts it.


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