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?