Thursday, March 02, 2006


The Salary Taboo

I’ve started reading one of those “why young people can’t get ahead” books, and it reminded me of a question I’ve had in the back of my mind for years:

Why is it taboo to talk openly about salaries?

In the public sector, individual salaries are matters of public record. Anyone who wants to know my salary (assuming they know my actual name) can simply look it up. Hell, the faculty union includes deans’ salaries in its monthly newsletter to its membership. And raises are across-the-board percentages, so there’s no issue of internal competition. Yet, even here, you can feel the temperature of the room drop when the subject comes up.

It’s especially noticeable now, when prices of anything and everything are easily accessed on the internet. I can comparison shop for almost anything on the internet, and, depending on my price sensitivity, punish retailers for being 1% higher than their competitors. Yet if you ask HR what a given job pays, you get an answer like “that’s grade 15.” Undaunted, you ask what grade 15 jobs pay. “Between 40 and 80, depending on experience.” That’s helpful. Imagine buying cars that way. How much for the Civic? “Between 12 and 36, depending.” Uh, no thanks.

In my misspent youth, I hung around with some pretty ardent leftists. (One of them, a dear friend who has apparently fallen off the planet, introduced me to a hobby she called “shitting on capitalism.” When visiting Nearby Big City, you make a point of using the lobby bathroom at the swankiest hotels possible. I still consider it a fine gesture. Take that, Paris Hilton!) They explained the salary taboo as a divide-and-conquer technique used by evil capitalists to exploit the workers. There’s a certain logic to that, but it doesn’t explain why the same taboo holds at unionized nonprofits. If nobody is making a profit off the taboo, but the taboo still exists, then something else must be at work.

It’s even worse with neighbors. We’ll talk about house values, car purchases, and all of that without hesitation, but I wouldn’t dream of asking them what they make, and vice versa. It’s not about internal competition, since we have different employers in different industries.

Since I haven’t been able to crack this nut myself, and I’ve never read an explanation that made sense to me, I’ll cast it to the winds of the blogosphere:

Why is it taboo to talk openly about salaries?

I think salaries have come to represent success. If your salary is low, you're less successful. There's also a sense that, if you reveal you make a good salary, but you're not driving a nice car or living in the best house on the street, you're revealing a lot about your general financial well-being. I've shared my salary with a few people at work because I actually think that salaries are used to drive wedges between staff (sometimes). It's hard to negotiate a higher salary here, but if you're armed with other people's salary information, you have a better chance. Of course management doesn't want you to have that chance.
Management doesn't control what workers discuss in off hours. And as Dad Dean pointed out, this taboo isn't restricted to the workspace. This is a deeper culturally sensitive issue, much like discussing religion or politics in polite society, discussion of "station in life" simply isn't done.
I lived in the former Soviet Union, and it's very common there for people to ask how much you (or your parents) make, even very soon after meeting someone.

In that culture, from what I experienced, that question isn't fraught with issues of success or worth as much as it is here in the U.S.
Israelis also talk about it all the time. Early in the conversation!
Yeah, I think this is a middle-to-upper-class thing, as well as a cultural one. In my working-class family, everybody knows what everybody makes. I know that my cousin is making 11 bucks an hour in a factory, for example. Why? Well, because it's a normal thing to talk about. I mean, I haven't even seen my cousin in like a year. Also, my stepdad's family immigrated from the middle east, and in that family it's very common to talk about how much money one makes (though there is a lot of bragging and inflating of salaries that goes on, I think). Imagine how surprised they all were when they found out I'm not making a 6 figure salary with my PhD!
I have to agree with Laura on this one. Even as a grad student when my friends and I were making the exact same about and we all knew it, money was a sensitive topic. Some people always seemed to have more "free, disposable" cash for a movie or dinners and a few people bought new cars! I was not one of those and more than a few people asked me why I always said I couldn't afford to do fun stuff and why I continued to drive my crappy car. They assumed that because we have the same salaries that we had the same expenses and that I was just bad with money. Not true, I just had no savings and that changes everything about money (at least for me).

I also think that money is a sensitive topic for people who don't have a lot. It's hard to struggle every day of every month for years and years. I think if I were in that position (especially if I had children I was trying to support) I would NOT want to talk salaries with someone who made more than me. I'd feel like they couldn't understand.
Thanks for the global perspective! I didn't know this was an American thing, although it sort of makes sense.

The class basis, I don't know. I've never known money to be a topic of open discussion, and I've been around all classes over the years. Maybe I'm just missing it.
Good question. I've started breaking this taboo by telling the fulltimers at my university what I'm making a month (a little over $600 this term). It absolutly shocks them. And as a result, I'm not getting asked to do so much of the crap that I was once expected to do for free around here...
I definitely agree with Laura. A few years ago someone who ranked above me hinted that I might want to arm myself with information about what my (male) counterparts were earning (quite a bit more). I was quite shocked, and then angry, but I used the information quite blatantly in my annual review and my salary was raised.

here was a case where no one spoke openly about their salaries, as it was an issue of power and control. it *did* drive a wedge, and continues to do so for some.
At my small, private institution, staff are required to sign annual salary agreements that state baldly that "salaries are a confidential matter" between each employee and the institution. I don't know if this is different for faculty (adjunct or TT)... but it certainly combines with the general American culture of silence around salaries to forestall discussion of the topic.

Several years ago, while working for the student newspaper, I requested aggregate information on staff and faculty salaries from the Personnel office and was flatly refused on confidentiality grounds; I was led to wonder, "What are they hiding?" I still don't know, but I wonder how much unease my institution fosters by its lack of transparency.

Certainly, my institution's policy of silence forestalls honest evaluation of its claimed commitment to social justice; were the general impression among faculty and staff that they are underpaid borne out by data, the institution's image (and, I would think, employee retention) would certainly suffer.

What's to be gained by withholding generalized information about what an institution pays its employees? And how does the institutional community benefit from the imposition of a gag order on matters relating to money?
I think it is because salary is an indication of the worth society places on you.

Within a public, non-profit the salary scale is public, but a person's placement on it is not. Additionally, where I am, the rules about how a person is placed on the salary scale changed recently, so that the result is some new people make more than those who have been here for a while. In fact, I know of an adjunct here who is making more than the tenured guy across the hall. Naturally, that makes him mad -- but she was placed on the salary scale with more favorable rules than was he. Getting the gap made-up has been tough.

The end result of this is asking about salary is generally bad -- if the answer is that you make more than they do, they feel bad while if the answer is that they make more, you feel cheated.
I must say this discussion of salary is interesting for me. Having recently retired from the military, we all knew what you earned--at least in that job. Your rank was on your sleeve or shoulder, and if you received specialty pay, you had a badge to show for it (wings, etc.) You're a Lt Col? That's an O-5. You have been in 23 yrs? Okay... and you fly jets (my grandmother wants to fly jet...) So therefore you make....XXX

Oh--and having that PhD? No pay change. You are the same as every other officer with the grade and time.

Now, having transitioned to "civilian university" I find it more interesting, as their is the whole " inversion" issue (assistants earning up to twice what full profs earn) and that dreaded gap between Arts and Sciences and the Business Schools (Those poor engineers--they keep pointing out that the business salaries are "counter intuitive." Hmmm if they had more business sense it might seem more obvious!)

I suspect no A&S faculty in "university" wants to sit at a table with new Assistant Prof in B School, and talk about how the B School's 9 month contract is 120K on a nine, and they are earning 30-60K on a 9.

Imagine if all the A&S faculty stopped teaching, until they earned that amount. Would the administration realize they have "under-rewarded" them all these years, or would the Administration decide that perhaps A&S is not longer really necessary for a "good" education?
I read this post thinking along the lines of the last commenter: discussion of academic salaries would reveal the extent to which people in some departments earn more than others for what is regarded in some ways as the same job. Yet Economists make more than English professors. And we don't want to deal with that.
Forgive me... I realize now that my failure to proofread resulted in a "their" instead of "there" and a "not" rather than a "no." Arggghhhh... Of course, as I sit here reading it AFTER posting, I catch it...

Now, to re-read this, and catch the LATEST errors...
This is an interesting issue, and something I've wondered about more recently, in my hunt for a new position.

More evidence on culture: I lived in southeast Asia for a while and whenever I met someone new, they would typically ask the same two questions: How much money do you make? and How much do you weigh? As a born-and-raised white-middle-class midwesterner, I always felt like I had been stabbed. We don't talk about such things.

I suspect it has a lot to do with a certain amount of not wanting to make others (or oneself) feel bad-- for me it's not the easiest thing to talk about simply because I'm embarrassed that I don't have more savings than I do. People who have lots of money (I'm thinking Donald Trump-- isn't he suing some publication for intimating he isn't as rich as he says?) maybe they aren't so shy about it. Unless they are. Heck if I know what rich people think.

All I know is, my mom taught me that we don't talk about how much we make, and CERTAINLY not about how much we weigh.
I can't even IMAGINE asking a new acquaintance how much she weighs! Wow.

It would be hard not to laugh out loud if someone asked me that...
I can relate--I used to live in Ecuador and "what do you make" and "how much do you weigh" were very common questions, even upon initially meeting someone. But both took a backseat to "how old are you" and "why aren't you married", in that order, even before asking "what's your name" in some cases!

On topic more directly: I think most of it is culturally learned. In the US we do like our illusion that we are all middle-class, and a frank discussion of salary would reveal that in fact there are stark class differences--something that most people would not rather address with neighbors and co-workers.
I work around this by asking people how much they think I should be making, rather than asking how much they themselves make. Often the answer to the first question is more informative anyway.
I think that comment two above is key: in the US we like to pretend that everyone is comfortably middle class, with the corollary fact that our definitions of "middle class" are all over the map, anything from $40k/year to $1million/yr. There's no basis to judge b/c we never talk about such things, b/c to do so would be to acknowledge that there is not equality of opportunity for everyone.
I find people are sensitive about their salaries because there is a feeling deep down in this country that if you don't make more than the next person you are some how a failure. I think this is just a symptom of capitalism. Some people get real defensive when you ask as well. I imagine some people are just embarassed at how little they make while others might think you are out to screw them over. I do believe th confidentiality agreements that companies make you sign is an attempt for them to get away with paying people as little as possible. If salaries were well know more people would expect to be paid as much as the next person for doing the same job.
I'm deeply suspicious of any company that makes salary confidentiality part of the contract. Definately divide and conquer, enabling management to claim that employees are getting what everyone else is when they, in fact, aren't.
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