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Money Talks. So Should You.

Written By Jenna Britton | Aug 7, 2019

In 1998, Lilly Ledbetter was 60 years old and nearing retirement after spending many successful years as one of the first women in management at the Goodyear tire factory.

The job had been a dream come true; a welcome addition to an already full life with her husband and two children. And so it came as quite an unwelcome shock when, nearly 19 years after her very first day, Lilly received an anonymous note revealing that she made thousands of dollars less than two men counterparts doing the exact same job.

Lilly’s experience is perhaps the most famous one that highlights the importance of salary transparency. But hers is far from the only one.

A few months back, I hosted a dinner for a few women friends — almost all of whom were coworkers — on International Women’s Day. The conversation turned to work and then to pay, and I quickly discovered that I made significantly more than one of my colleagues.

We didn’t speak much about it; it was uncomfortable and confusing to discover the disparity between our pay when I don’t think either of us could effectively communicate what made my role more seemingly significant. And it was only after leaving that job a few months later that I would find out from my coworker-turned-boyfriend that, all that time, I had made significantly less than him.

Of course, our salary was determined by a number of factors; there wasn’t a particular hierarchy among the jobs my boyfriend, my women colleagues, and I did, and we all played different roles in the company. We could fairly assume that different values had been placed on our respective job titles.

But it all made me wonder. Why had I been paid less than my partner? Why had I been paid more than my friend? What made one role — or one person — more valuable than the other? And why weren’t we privy to any of that information?

It’s precisely that train of thought (among other things) that encourages most companies to keep employee salaries under wraps.

In addition to the potential to cause conflict, tension, or jealousy amongst employees — an issue that might cause talented employees to leave or simply create discord in the office — salary transparency can make it hard to consider performance and individual skills. After all, how can a company incentivize a higher performer without hurting someone else’s feelings?

But that’s the thing about salary transparency — by its very definition, it necessitates honesty and communication from both the employer and the employee. Because salary (and money in general) is such a highly-charged, emotional topic, salary transparency requires a solid policy and clear communication from the start — and too many companies don’t actually know where to start when it comes to this.

There’s no denying the value of it, though. As evidenced by Lilly’s experience (and, ahem, my own) salary transparency is a powerful tool in combating gender pay inequity.

According to Samantha Cooney in a 2018 TIME article, “While white women in the U.S. on average earn 79% of what white men make, black women earn 63% of what white men make, Native American women bring in 57%, and Hispanic women — 54%, according to a 2018 report from the American Association of University Women.” Women are also often penalized for the same negotiation practices for which men are praised.

Even giving employers the non-racist, non-sexist benefit of the doubt, salary transparency helps to avoid the unconscious biases we all possess, too.

If nothing else, salary transparency is more likely to attract motivated employees who are transparent and honest with their employer, too.

That’s part of the reason social media management software company Buffer has been publicly sharing the salary of every employee in the company since 2014. The company uses a very specific formula — considering factors such as job title, experience, and market value in the specific location in which their employee works/lives — to make each individual salary less objective. In the same TIME article referenced above, Buffer’s public relations manager claimed that applications to work for the company increased significantly once they went public with their salary data.

It makes sense: practicing openness and transparency will not only attract more people; it will attract a more diverse group of people (who feel confident they won’t be discriminated against) overall. If nothing else, salary transparency is more likely to attract motivated employees who are transparent and honest with their employer, too.

Whether or not you work for a company that’s open about the pay grade of every peer, you can start to have these conversations on your own.

And no matter your company’s specific policy, you have the right to do it: according to the National Labor Relations Act, you have the legal right to discuss any conditions of your employment — which includes salary, environment, safety, and more.

But like sex, politics, and religion, money is still a taboo (and sometimes emotional) topic. For many people, it acts as an identity marker of our inherent self-worth. So even if your coworkers want to hear about your salary, they may be hesitant to share theirs.

Here are some helpful (and more comfortable) ways to talk shop with your colleagues and peers:

Keep It Casual.

No one wants to feel like they’re part of a negotiation they never asked to be part of. There’s no need for a formal meeting — and it’s only likely to make all involved uncomfortable — so keep it casual. Bring up the topic at the coffee machine, over drinks after work… or, you know, at your annual International Women’s Day dinner party just like I did.

Offer Official Information.

While it might be more comfortable to keep the setting casual, you might want to come to the conversation prepared with official information. Do your research and find the going rate for your role in your city. You’re not just grazing for gossip about the going rates around the office; you’re confirming that you (and your coworkers!) are being paid what you’re worth. Why not share your findings with a friendly coworker, and ask if that sounds about right?

You Go First.

Listen, you’re the one reading this article (thank you, by the way!). You’re the one who is interested in transparency and equity. And so, you’re the one who should go first. Share your salary openly and honestly, and ask if that aligns with your colleagues’ salary — or their expectations for what the role should be paid. The discussion should benefit both of you. Most anyone you’re chatting with will be able (and perhaps eager) to spill their salary too, once they know they’re just following suit.

After receiving that anonymous note, Lilly Ledbetter filed a sex discrimination case against Goodyear — a suit that she won… and then lost on appeal (over a technicality) at the Supreme Court.

Just a little over a decade later, however, President Obama passed the the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, amending the technicality and making it possible for anyone experiencing pay discrimination to file suit — and this time, hopefully, win.

As an employee, the benefits to swapping salary information are many — including and especially ensuring that pay is equitable, no matter who you are, what you look like, who you love, or what you believe.

So yes, you should talk money at the watercooler. Do it for Lilly, do it for your colleagues, and do it for you.

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