When (and When Not) to Talk About Salary at Work

Woman talking to her coworkers in the office.
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 Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Have you ever had a boss tell you that you’re not allowed to discuss salary at work? If so, it’s likely that they were breaking the law.

In most cases, the right to discuss your salary with co-workers is protected under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Section 7 of the act in particular protects employees’ rights to engage in “...concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.”

However, just because you’re allowed to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. The question remains: Is it in your best interest to talk about money on the job? Find out when it is (and isn’t) appropriate to do so. 

When to Talk About Salary at Work

If one or more of the following are true, it might be worth it to be more open about your compensation.

When You Want More Money

Discomfort about salary discussions is an issue for many employees. In fact, a salary study from job search and careers company Zippia reports that even though only 45% of workers feel adequately paid, 50% still aren’t comfortable discussing salary in the workplace. Additionally, those willing to discuss their compensation with co-workers are more likely to say that they expect a sizable raise.

Of course, it’s hard to say which came first—the willingness to discuss salary or the conviction that the next raise will be a big one. 

There are potential benefits to openly discussing salary in the workplace, as these conversations can let you know if you’re being grossly underpaid, and, in turn, help you negotiate a higher wage.  

When You Want Pay Equity

Women still earn only 80 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to research from PayScale, a compensation data and software provider. Even the controlled gender pay gap, which compares only the salaries of women and men with similar job titles, experience, and education, stands at 98 cents on the dollar. However, PayScale’s data also shows that when companies adopt transparent pay practices, the gender pay gap at their organization disappears.

Pay transparency” can mean a lot of different things, from conducting pay audits that ensure equity in pay among workers of different genders and races, to being fully open about the salary of everyone at the company, from the CEO on down.

When You Have the Power to Change the Culture

If you’re a decision-maker at your company, you can do more than just talk to your colleagues about pay. You can push for a greater commitment to openness around salary, benefits, and other types of compensation.

In addition to adopting more transparent pay practices, your organization might consider performing pay audits to ensure that workers are paid equitably.

When to Keep Salary Information to Yourself

There are times when it’s better to play your cards close to the vest. Before you decide, consider whether any of these situations apply.

When You Won’t Get the Whole Picture

Managers who advise workers not to talk about salary with colleagues may do so because they want to avoid tension and hurt feelings among the staff. Legal issues aside, there is some validity to this concern, but not because employees with equal qualifications and similar skills and experience should be making widely different salaries. (They absolutely should not.)

The issue with sharing salary information with colleagues is that you rarely get the full picture. 

For instance, your co-worker might be making more money than you are because of bias or bad company policy, or they might be making more because they have a certification that you lack, or have more experience in another area that boosts their skill set. It’s hard to get all the data you need in casual conversation.

Your best bet may be to back up any anecdotal information you receive with more general research about appropriate salaries in your field. Salary surveys and tools from companies like Glassdoor, PayScale, Indeed, and others can help you figure out a reasonable salary range for your position and goals.

When You’re Asked About Salary History

Several states, from California to New Jersey, have enacted salary history bans, prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for information about their pay at previous employers.

But even if it’s still legal in your state for hiring managers to ask you for your salary history, you might want to steer the conversation away from the past. Tying salary offers to prior pay makes it difficult, if not impossible, for underpaid workers to better their financial situation. In practice, this fuels the gender pay gap and other pay inequities related to race, ethnicity, and other factors.

If you’re negotiating salary, you don’t want to bring any of this up. Instead, focus the conversation on the job at hand. 

Researching salary information before your job interview will help you target appropriate compensation.

When Your Gut Says No

No matter what the law states about your rights, or what the research shows about achieving financial goals, there will be times when you feel uncomfortable discussing money at work. Maybe you’ve heard horror stories about colleagues getting in trouble with the boss, regardless of whether management should be able to interfere. Or, perhaps you’re being pressured by co-workers to disclose financial information that you’d prefer to keep to yourself.

Regardless of why you feel uncomfortable, it’s important to listen to your instincts. You can’t make the world a better, more equitable place if you’re worried about paying your bills. 

Take care of yourself and your financial security first—and then consider whether it’s time to start searching for a new job at an employer where you feel safe advocating for fair pay.