I have been psychologically conditioned by American culture to feel that open discussion about salaries is deeply uncomfortable, as if it involved baring your personal finances. I have earned money ever since I was 9 years old, working as a mommy’s helper for neighbors, to supplement my small weekly allowance. And I learned very early on that it is not polite to gossip about how much money you had, whether from babysitting or from parents. As a kid, I also spent many summers in China, where my extended family lived. In China, unlike the U.S., people talked about how much money so-and-so made all the time, even to practical strangers. Salaries, bonuses, perks like cars and trips, were all discussed openly in China. That was normal talk in China, but gauche back in the States. Among Chinese circles here in the States, it seemed to me, the longer the immigrants have been here, the more immersion into the mainstream, the less talk there was about how much money folks made among acquaintances.
This norm of “secrecy about pay” is ingrained in the professional workplace. That’s a shame. Companies have excellent and reliable information about what people are paid, both internally and in their industries, while employees do not. The strength of this norm can be seen in the fact that legislators have found it necessary to try to enact specific protections for employees who discuss their compensation. It’s critical that employees know about these protections.
In California, where I live, the law prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who talk about their wages and prohibits employment contracts that require employees to keep their wages confidential. (Several other states have some version of this law, including Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Michigan and Vermont.) A recent story about a Google engineer, Erica Baker, caught my eye, because she assembled a spreadsheet where Googlers could enter their salary information, and thousands of her coworkers responded enthusiastically. Apparently, her manager was not so happy about it. Eventually, though, the story got out and was publicized, and Google issued a statement, making it clear that “Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose.”
At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects the rights of workers to discuss their terms and conditions of employment, including wages. The agency in charge of enforcing the NLRA, the National Labor Relations Board, also prohibits confidentiality policies that clamp down on discussion of wages and benefits. Employees subjected to disciplinary action can seek help from the NLRB, regardless of whether they are unionized or non-unionized. Also, Congress has pending legislation, the Paycheck Fairness Act, that would make it illegal for employers to retaliate against employees who disclose or discuss their salaries with co-workers.
Openness about salaries can be achieved without divulging individual compensation. Some companies get sued over unequal pay and are forced in litigation to turn over the information, while a few others are starting to do it voluntarily, as one of my colleagues noted. It need not and should not be through embarrassing revelations like the Sony hack that employees learn vital information about how they are valued in the labor market. But until companies adopt sensible transparency measures, some employees are rightfully taking matters into their own hands.