BUSINESS
07/23/2015 09:44 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2015

Tell Your Co-Workers How Much You Make!

There's no law against it and it increases the chances you'll be paid fairly.

If you want to make sure you’re being paid fairly, go ahead and talk to your co-workers about how much you make. Seriously.

That’s what happened at Google, where some workers revealed their salaries in a shared spreadsheet started by engineer Erica Baker, who told her story Friday on Twitter

Now an engineer at chat service Slack, Baker said 5 percent of Google workers, or about 2,800 people, ultimately shared their salary information on the spreadsheet. She didn’t go into too much detail about what they found, but apparently some people felt they weren’t being paid as much as they deserved.

“People asked for and got equitable pay,” she tweeted, “based on the data in the sheet.” (Read the whole tweet-storm at the end of this story.)

Staying mum about your salary is one of the great unwritten rules of office life. The conventional wisdom is that talking about your pay will lead to jealousy, conflict and problems with your colleagues. But there actually is no rule against discussing pay. The National Labor Relations Act, passed during the Depression, expressly protects most workers who disclose their salaries.

The "don’t ask, don’t tell" rule is mostly a myth, perpetrated by generations of business school grads who don’t want employees gabbing about salary for a very simple economic reason: They can get away with paying less if salary data is kept secret. Put simply, your boss doesn’t want you talking, because it could lead to a bunch of people wanting more money.

Indeed, talking about pay with your colleagues is the simplest way to figure out if you’re getting a fair deal or if there’s widespread gender, racial or age discrimination going on in your workplace.

“People think of talking about salary as kind of taboo, but it’s a good thing,” said Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “How else are you gonna find out if something illegal is going on or if you’re treated fairly?”

But what is fair? Deciding someone’s salary isn’t like pricing a gallon of milk. Fair pay doesn’t mean paying everyone exactly the same amount.

In fact, Google has been open about the fact that it pays differently for the same jobs. The company’s senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, actually devotes an entire chapter -- titled “Pay Unfairly” -- to that point in his recent book Work Rules. The best workers contribute exponentially more to the bottom line than the average worker, he writes.

“A great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer,” Bock quotes Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as saying. As someone who’s hired and managed writers and editors, I heartily support this line of reasoning.

Still, figuring out a salary is tricky. Bias and inequality inevitably creep in: Women still make less than men; blacks are often paid less than whites. In fact, Google routinely checks to make sure it doesn’t pay differently based on race or gender or other discriminatory factors, the search giant said in a statement -- a move other companies are starting to make these days. 

“We regularly run analysis of compensation, promotion, and performance to ensure that they are equitable with no pay gap. Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

Some female engineers at Google actually make more than male engineers there, according to a report from Glassdoor. And some more senior male engineers outearn their female peers, according to the self-reported data collected by the jobs website.

Glassdoor

While some news outlets reported that Baker got in trouble at Google because of the spreadsheet, she said that wasn’t true. And so far she isn’t giving interviews to the media.

Back in the day, companies would justify paying women less than men because, among other reasons, men were seen as breadwinner providers responsible for an entire household. Black people were paid less just because of straight-up racism. These pay gaps haven’t gone away. On Tuesday, new data from the Labor Department revealed that women make 81.9 cents for every dollar a man makes. Black men make 76.1 cents for every dollar a white man earns. 

The data doesn’t account for different occupations, experience levels or indeed any of the nuance that goes into making pay decisions. Yet, studies have shown that even when that’s all factored in, there is still a persistent pay gap between men and women.

Consider what happened to Lilly Ledbetter. After working for 19 years at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., someone finally told her -- via an anonymous note -- that she was making thousands of dollars less than her male colleagues with the same job. She filed a lawsuit for sex discrimination that made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where she lost on a technicality. The loss inspired a law, The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which makes it easier for a woman to sue her employer for gender-based pay discrimination. 

Talking about your pay is one extremely simple way to close the gaps, as Quartz editor Meredith Bennett-Smith noted back in April.

And it’s getting to be an easier topic to broach. Openness about salaries is increasingly losing its third-rail status, thanks to websites like Glassdoor, SalaryExpert and PayScale and an increased willingness among millennials to talk about it. Some companies even encourage it. 

The National Labor Relations Board has also recently been cracking down more on companies that try to silence workers who talk. In April, the agency put out a memo on the topic clarifying its position.

Before you start blabbing about your salary, make sure you’re allowed to: Supervisors aren’t protected under federal law and neither are government employees -- though typically their pay levels are publicly available. There are some other minor restrictions you can see for yourself here

And do it discreetly. Pay is still a pretty touchy subject. Don’t corner your colleague in the bathroom and demand to see his pay stub.

Say something like, “Hey, I want to make sure I’m being paid fairly. Would you mind telling me how much you make?” You may want to assure your colleague that you’ll keep his name out of your salary negotiations. You might want to talk over a cocktail or a coffee outside the office.

And what if you find out that the person sitting next to you, who does the exact same thing, is making more money? Well, if you think you are at the same level in terms of experience and skill, you can talk to your boss about it. That's where it gets tough.

Your boss might pop your bubble and let you know you're not doing quite as well as you thought. You can then ask what you need to do to improve. Or, you might get a raise -- like some of those Google folks did. Then you can bask in the fact that you've just made your workplace better. You might also get some middling unsatisfactory answer that reveals pretty quickly that your employer is discriminatory or unfair -- and you may decide to quit, or contact the National Labor Relations Board or just become disgruntled. Prepare yourself.

If you're worried about pissing off your boss, well she’s just going to have to get with the times. You can let the higher-ups know that studies have shown that when workers know where they stand on pay -- and feel that it’s been administered fairly -- they’re actually happier and more productive.

Pay is the No. 1 reason people decide to leave their jobs, said Scott Dobroski, a community expert at Glassdoor. “When employees understand how pay is determined, they’re going to stick with employers longer.”

See, it’s a win-win!

Read Baker’s full tweet-storm here:

CONVERSATIONS