Thursday, March 02, 2006
The Salary Taboo
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
Now, to re-read this, and catch the LATEST errors...
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.
It would be hard not to laugh out loud if someone asked me that...
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.
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