I have little issue with telling people what I get paid unless they ask. I think this juxtaposition comes from the age-old question of nature vs. nurture as I was raised to never talk about money, not even to family members. That’s the nurture. But when I was applying for my first “grown-up” job, I experienced firsthand how difficult it is to negotiate compensation without knowing how much peer employees are paid. That’s … well, that’s more nurture, I guess. Anyway, while I was interviewing for positions, I collected all the information I could find on average salaries for recent engineering graduates. Unfortunately, there was such a huge variation in the reported values that they were useless. So, I decided to break the ultimate wage transparency taboo. I walked up to a person in my graduating year, job offers in hand, and asked if we could chat about salaries.
Looking back, it seems perfectly normal, but at the time it felt like a huge risk. I could also hear my father’s disappointment that I would even think about such a discussion. I didn’t want to offend anyone or maybe even make myself look weak, whatever that means. It was, however, one of the most useful conversations I’ve ever had. Soon others were joining in, showing their offers, and talking about how they felt their interviews went, then making plans for their next steps.
The conversations I had that day changed the whole direction of my career. I didn’t take the highest-paying offer, or the second-highest, for that matter. I took the offer at the company I liked the most, the one that provided comprehensive training, the one that encouraged the idea of my gaining an engineering license, and the one that turned out to still provide one of the highest starting salaries in comparison to my peers. Prior to having those conversations, I had been leaning toward the highest salary offer, at a company where a friend ended up working. He didn’t enjoy his time there and left as soon as he could. I, however, loved the job I took.
From that same set of conversations, I have a really vivid memory of a person almost in tears when she showed us her extremely low-ball offers. Her best offer was 26% lower than the next-lowest in the group. She managed to negotiate that higher and to a point she was happy with, but it was only after being involved in these conversations that she thought to do so. I think she knew the offer was low in a general sense, but I don’t think she realized her fellow graduates were getting higher offers and that perhaps she deserved one too.
So to me it seems clear that salary discussions are great for job hunters, but what about for companies? I would argue it’s good for a company to be transparent about pay. People feel appreciated if they can compare themselves to their colleagues. Well, at least if they also know the calculation that determines the rates, and the company is consistent in using that calculation. There is, not surprisingly, a tremendous amount of psychology that goes into how a company can become transparent in their pay rates without offending some employees.
If we’re going to be honest, some employees are going to be offended anyway. People do tend to overestimate their own productivity. Research into the effect of wage transparency is limited, mostly because so few companies practice it. From the few who do publish internally, and maybe even externally, there is anecdotal evidence that wage transparency makes employees feel more valued and, as a result, they are more productive. Another obvious benefit of wage transparency is that it would almost certainly help reduce the gender pay gap, though that’s not necessarily seen by companies as a benefit to them.
But here’s the rub: Companies don’t all agree that paying market rate for employees is going to help their company. They suggest that it would create bitterness, lead to higher pay requests, and thus a reduction in the number of staff they can “afford” to employ. Some contracts go as far as to contain a “do not discuss” clause preventing employees from discussing their pay. Being a person who is often told by colleagues how much they are paid; I can see why. I’ve worked in some places where the difference in pay is so extreme, I’ve spat my drink out discussing it. In only one situation was I aware of the background calculation. In all the others I was confused and astounded. The simple fix to this would be to discuss the calculation. If that is being used consistently, then all pay is justified. If it isn’t and you feel your pay is too low comparatively, then maybe you are undervalued and it’s time to move on.
Why do I feel happy to talk about my salary unless I’m asked? Because I have only been asked in a situation where I felt like I would create the awkward, tense bitterness that employers would like to avoid. If we had transparency in these matters, I know I personally would be happier to tell people what I earned and would even start asking more people.
About the Author:
Rae Taylor is an Engineer with extensive experience in advanced techniques for materials characterization. She received an award-winning Ph.D. in Materials Science, which focused on the analysis of microstructures using electron microscopy. Prior to her research in Materials Science, she worked in the clean and wastewater industry. Over her career, Rae has gained extensive experience in project management and lab management, including team building, process engineering, construction oversight, safety management, and quality assurance. She has over ten years of experience designing, developing, and testing experimental procedures. Rae is team-oriented and has extensive experience teaching and tutoring, both in the work environment and in the classroom. She has presented her work to a wide variety of audiences, ranging from academics and industrial specialists to the general public and holds a particular interest in the development of resilient whether it is in materials or infrastructure as a whole.
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Anthony Fasano, P.E.
Engineering Management Institute
Author of Engineer Your Own Success