asking coworkers about what they get paid, my boss is borrowing money from staff, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Can I ask my resigning coworker how much she was getting paid?

I work in a small office of a multi-national company. We only have one office and fewer than 10 employees here in the States. I wasn’t able to find a coherent salary range since I haven’t been able to find a benchmark-able company and job title that’s similar to mine. I have been dissatisfied with my salary and wanted a raise. I’ve recently been offered a transfer to a more lucrative role but was told that my salary will stay the same until later this year when my performance can be evaluated.

I found out that a colleague of mine has resgined. She has been through a similar career path as I did. We both came into the company with no knowledge of this industry. We both started and the same position and later transferred to the other. I can’t resist my curiosity wanting to ask her if she’d comfortable sharing her salary range and change with me.

I understand it’s definitely weird to ask your current colleague about their salary, but is it okay if they are leaving? How would you suggest me to approach this?

Actually, talking to colleagues about their salary can be an excellent way to get insight into your company’s pay structure, and especially to sniff out pay equity problems (like a tendency to pay people in demographic group A more than people in demographic group B who are doing the same work and performing at the same level).

It’s complicated, though, by the fact that so many people feel awkward talking about pay and often find direct questions about it to be intrusive. One way to get around that is to say something like, “I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting a sense of the company’s salary range for positions like mine. Do you have a sense of the range you’d expect for my current role?” People who are comfortable sharing their own salary info will often do so in response to that kind of query, whereas people who prefer to keep it quiet can do that pretty easily too.

By the way, while we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that many companies have policies that prohibit discussing pay with coworkers — and these policies are generally illegal, since the National Labor Relations Act forbids employers from preventing employees from discussing pay with each other. Interestingly, it’s one of the most frequently violated labor laws out there.

2. My boss is borrowing money from employees, who then become his favorites

My boss and I are restaurant managers. We are constantly in conflict, due to our differing management styles (his is unprofessional). His boss was recently called to mediate our disputes. It did not go well. Now, have learned that my boss is borrowing large sums of money from our hourly employees. Those hourly employees then become his “favorites” and receive preferential treatment. If I go to his boss now, I might look like a backstabbing trouble maker. Regardless, this issue has potential to harm the business. Do I tell his boss or just suck it up and keep looking for other work?

That’s horrible, and yes, you should raise it. Be factual and don’t add editorial comment; just report what you know to be the case. You should also seriously think about looking for a different job because working with a boss like this is generally really bad for your quality of life, as well as your career.

3. Letting candidates know our hiring process is still moving

How would you formulate a response a job candidate’s resume is still under review so the candidate doesn’t think we went dark? We typically do a brief phone screen, administer a questionnaire for them to complete, and then share their info at that point with the team. The next step in the process would bring them to an on-site interview, should we want to move forward. So how would you convey that to the candidate? Do you ask them to tell you should they be moving faster towards an offer with other employers at this time?

Once they return the questionnaire, I’d send a form email that says something like, “Thanks so much for completing this. We’ll be reviewing candidates and will be in touch soon.” If it’s likely to be a long time they hear back, I’d change “soon” to “X week” or “August” or whatever it’s likely to be.

And if there’s a candidate who you’re particularly interested in at this stage, I’d expedite them so they’re not left hanging. If that’s not possible, then I’d reach out to them and say, “It’s likely to be X weeks before we’re able to schedule in-person interviews, but we consider you a particularly strong candidate and are really looking forward to talking at that stage. If you have any timeline constraints on your end, please let me know.”

But in general, strive to move from one hiring stage to the next fairly quickly, or you will risk losing good candidates. Also, there’s no reason that you have to move everyone along as a group — you can interview people on a rolling basis.

4. Should I get a back-dated bonus?

Do I have grounds for a back-dated bonus? I was recently promoted to lead a team and was offered a bonus package as part of the promotion, which I previously haven’t received. On being promoted, I have found out that my former colleague, who now reports to me, has been receiving a bonus. We were essentially doing the same role in different regions, but while he was receiving a bonus, I wasn’t.

Naturally I feel quite demoralized by this and want to know what my options are. This is slightly complicated by the fact that my existing boss who promoted me has left and I am waiting for a new manager to come on board.

There are all sorts of reasons why people’s compensation might differ, including on things like whether someone gets a bonus or not — factors like performance, difficulty of the work or region they’re responsible for, better negotiating when hired, tighter job marker when hired, and more. Asking for a back-dated bonus for work you’ve already performed under a different agreement wouldn’t reflect well on you, is unlikely to happen, and risks making your employer worry about your judgment, which is not what you want right after being promoted to a management role, let alone when you’re about to get a new boss who doesn’t know anything else about you.

5. Other advice blogs

I am an avid reader of your blog and love your posts, advice, and overall management style. Are there any blogs that you read on a regular basis that are HR or business related that you suggest reading?

Evil HR Lady is excellent and should be on your daily reading list. Carolyn Hax does life advice rather than workplace advice, but the former often translates to the latter. Harvard Business Review is good too. And The Management Center does a great monthly email with really useful resources for managers (full disclosure: they’re a client and I usually co-write that email).

{ 144 comments… read them below }

  1. Graciosa*

    Regarding #4, we’ve had a few questions in the past about employers who want to retroactively change someone’s pay in the employer’s favor, and there has been pretty universal agreement about how wrong (and illegal) this is. Changing a pay rate going forward is fine, but the employer cannot decide unilaterally to alter the previous agreement on pay.

    This is the other side of that situation. I understand that the OP is annoyed about finding out that another employee got a better deal – but the same rules apply. You don’t get to change the previous agreement on pay because you later decide it should have been more favorable.

    I’m sure this is not what the OP wanted to hear, but there’s no point in being mad about it when that really means “I’m furious that I accepted too little compensation for my previous role.” Learn from this and keep an eye on whether the compensation for the new role is fair for the market – but retrospective resentment following a raise and a promotion is not a formula for success in the new position.

    1. De (Germany)*

      “Changing a pay rate going forward is fine, but the employer cannot decide unilaterally to alter the previous agreement on pay.”

      Are you sure about that? Why wouldn’t the employer be free to just pay an employee more money as a bonus?

      I don’t advise asking for it at all, but it sounds like you are saying it would be illegal for an employer to decide they underpaid someone and then pay them the difference later and I don’t think that’s true.

      1. Lamb*

        It would be illegal for the employer to retroactively *lower* pay, as in “you’ve been making $12/hour, we’re changing that to $10, and that counts for your last three paychecks. Your deposit this week will be adjusted to make up for the difference.”

      2. Apollo Warbucks*

        You’re right there is nothing illegal about it, the company could decide to pay a retroactive bonus but I think the point Graciosa was making was as a point of principle if you come to an agreement about salary (including bonuses) then neither the employee or employer should try and alter that if they late become dissatisfied with the agreement.

        1. Graciosa*

          At least not retroactively to the detriment of the other party –

          Negotiations going forward are fine, and I have no objections to unexpected bonus payments to employees, but the agreement should stand until it’s changed for the future.

      1. Aussie Teacher*

        Huh. Can they just reprint letters from here without Alison’s permission (even though they are adding their own satirical advice) or is that plagiarism? Have the letter-writers given permission for their letters to be published elsewhere on the web? (I was recently reading Alison’s past posts on plagiarism and ppl stealing her stuff, which is why it immediately jumped to mind.)

        1. Natalie*

          I think you’re thinking of copyright issues, not plagiarism – the latter is passing off work as your own, so th Bad Advisor would have to be claiming to have written the letters herself.

          There’s an exception in copyright for commentary and satire which could theoretically cover this, assuming letters to an advice columnist are creative work in the first place.

        2. hbc*

          I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty certain that citing where it came from takes any idea of plagiarism out of the picture. No one is claiming another person’s writing as their own.

          Fair use and copyright might come into play, though, especially if there’s money being made. But I’m pretty sure there’s a whole lot of news sites making a lot more money by linking to other people’s work without having been successfully sued.

      2. jamlady*

        I remember some of these. I’m dying right now hahah especially the one who told his employee that she was lucky she’s pretty. Ugh.

        1. NoPantsFridays*

          Yeah, I just saw that one, I had to stop myself from laughing at work. It’s absolutely hilarious. Thanks for the link Stephanie!

        2. Stephanie*

          I missed the post about the guy who wanted to keep the $150 sticker on his lifted truck. I enjoyed both the original post here and the Tumblr’s take.

      1. jamlady*

        Oh goodness. I could barely get through his creepy letter. Thank goodness the response didn’t skirt around the real issue.

    1. Pennalynn Lott*

      I found Captain Awkward a couple of years ago and lurked for quite a long while before ever commenting. I noticed that lots of commentors prefaced their posts with things like, “I’m a bi, cis-gendered African-American woman in her 20’s,” as a way of framing their comments. On my very first comment I thought I was following the rules by starting with, “I’m a straight, cis-gendered, middle-aged white woman…” and — bam! — I got jumped on for throwing my straight, white privilege in everyone’s face. Ouch. My comment was actually sympathetic to the OP (who was considering gender reassignment surgery, which a close friend of mine had just gone through, so I was trying to help answer the OP’s question of, “What will others think?”) but it’s like no one ever got to that part. They were just hopping mad because I stated who I am as a way to frame my answer. I unsubscribed and have never been back.

      1. jamlady*

        That’s horrible! I’m not familiar with the site (I just opened it), but I like the AAM advice thread so much because everyone is mature and respectful (and obviously because Alison is awesome). It’s awful that such behavior is so rare on the internet.

      2. Stachington*

        Yeah, I actually stopped reading that blog because the commenters seemed a little… overzealous and ready to pounce on others. And I never even commented (never felt safe enough to!). But I did enjoy it for a while before that.

      3. Awkwardly Entertained By This*

        Sounds like you lurked and observed the commenting conventions without quite grasping the intention and purpose of those conventions. Which is sadly not unusual among the privileged.

        Did you take the time to respond to and learn from those comment that “jumped on” you? One of my favourite things about that site is that the commentariat is so great at supporting and helping those who show that they willing to learn. It’s a pity you never got the chance to experience that.

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          Yes, I learned that Captain Awkward is not the place for me. When I make an unintentional mistake, I prefer for the people who want to teach me a lesson do so with compassion and kindness, not vitriol.

  2. Ben Eubanks*

    I’m a long time fan and supporter of Alison, and I write about HR (though not in the same style or level of awesome as AAM). If anyone else here claims that as your profession, I encourage you to check it out!

  3. Stephanie*

    #2: Oh, there’s so much wrong with this. It’s like those pictures in the kiddie coloring books where you identify all the wrong stuff in the scene. You can just keep going and going. I would run. Far.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Especially if we could print it out and actually color it.

        “What are you doing, Elizabeth?” “I’m coloring at my desk; it’s been a tough morning.”

          1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

            I just bought a new My Little Pony coloring book on Saturday. Yes, I am secretly perpetually 9 years old.

          2. Fact & Fiction*

            Ahem, those who live (and color) in glass houses shouldn’t be throwing stones. And it’s not like I–er they–have secret stashes of coloring books and crayons they hide from the kids. Oh wait…

          3. JMegan*

            I do too! And like Fact & Fiction above, I refuse to share my colouring stuff with the children. They have their own stuff to lose, break, or leave the caps off – this set is mine!

          4. Sigrid*

            I’m in medical school, we’re currently doing neurophysiology, and I have a coloring book of the brain.

            Neuro is my favorite course BY FAR.

          5. Kyrielle*

            Coloring is awesome. Johanna Basford’s “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book” is amazing.

  4. Just me*

    OP 1: when I left my last job, a coworker asked me my salary. We went to lunch, it was private. I was leaving because I was underpaid. I was still the highest paid on our team. It was uncomfortable for her to ask on her part but I was happy to tell her the truth. I received a 45% increase for what was essentially a lateral move-I do a similar job but have a better title.

    Go ahead and ask, but do it in a way that the other person can say no. Good luck!

    1. MK*

      I think the most important thing, besides asking in a discreet manner and show that you are aware it’s a delicate issue, is not to push. If the other person refuses, take no for an answer and drop the subject. If they show they are uncomfortable, back off. If they give you a vague answer, don’t ask for details.

    2. Sunflower*

      I also think it’s slightly less awkward to ask someone when they’re leaving as opposed to while they’re still employed with the company. Not sure why this is but I can see myself being more comfortable giving out my past salaries once I’m employed somewhere else.

        1. Chocolate lover*

          I think it very much also depends on your relationship with the person. Even if I were leaving, there are only a select few people that I would tell my salary information, and some people with whom I would never share that information.

    3. Ed*

      My concern would be the remaining employee using my name and salary to justify a raise after I leave. That could upset my ex-manager and have a negative effect on a future reference.

  5. Sans*

    #4 – Many years ago at a previous job, I found out that the other managers in my department (same level, same salary grade) had been getting an annual bonus. I never did. I did the job for four years, got excellent reviews (4 of 5 and even 5 of 5), yet even the possibility of a bonus had never been mentioned. I didn’t find out others got them until a few years after I was no longer in the job (but still at the same company.) Was I pissed? Oh yeah. I still have no idea why I didn’t get a bonus. The ones who did get it didn’t negotiate for it, it was simply part of their package from the beginning. One manager only started three months before me, so it’s not like they totally changed the compensation rules between the times we were hired. But I didn’t say anything about it to the company, because I knew it was too late. It sucks, but there’s really nothing to be done retroactively, unfortunately.

  6. it's a nice day to start again*

    1 I got a red flag over this:

    I’ve recently been offered a transfer to a more lucrative role but was told that my salary will stay the same until later this year when my performance can be evaluated.

    So they have offered you the opportunity to take on a new role – but they don’t want to give you a raise until they’ve seen how well you perform in the new role?

    On one hand, I can understand how the employer would like to “try before they buy”. But unless you have an exceptional bond of trust with your employer – or the new job can be expressed in extremely clear written goals – I see this being a sore point at evaluation time. Is this new role one that requires a lot of extra work for you? How confident are you that you will excel at it? How will your management track your performance? What happens if management decides you have not been performing well? What happens if the management who offered you this deal leaves the company? Will your new management honor the deal? Will they have any record of it?

    Perhaps I simply have a bad attitude, but I’ve been burned too many times by this kind of “do this for us now, and later when you’re evaluated we’ll give you a raise” kind of ‘deal’.

    1. misspiggy*

      Exactly. And I only want to take on more responsibility if it’s worth paying for to the employer. If it isn’t, fine – I’ll stay with less on my plate and use the extra time and energy to find a better employer.

    2. AnotherAlison*

      This is pretty much the way things work at my company. You get pay revisions at annual review time, or mid-year review in very rare instances. I have not had the privilege to know what happens to people who might go from manager to VP and whether they get an “effective immediately” raise or not.

      Most moves at my company are natural career progression, so it kind of makes sense, but at the same time, I share the OP’s frustration — you should get paid for the job you’re doing when you start doing it, not 6-12 months later.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        (Oh, and annual reviews are in Nov.-Dec., but the pay increase isn’t effective until the beginning of April.)

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Yes, at the one larger corporation I worked at, in order to discourage employees from transferring to another position only for the money, they transferred everyone laterally for the first 90 days, then you got your increase.

      2. maggiethecat*

        I agree with being paid for the job when you start doing it not 6+ months later. Especially in OP’s case where it seems like they *might* begin getting paid more in 6 months based on performance. The cynic in me thinks that sounds really subjective!

  7. Steve G*

    #5 – other advice blogs. I discovered during my last job hunt and love the letters/articles there.

    #4 – I don’t agree with your thinking unless you are 100% sure that your jobs are identical. At Past Co my job vs. the jobs of people in the other 5 markets we did was totally different. Mine was growing, so there were lots of long hours and growing pains. Mine was also had much more market deadlines and more regulatory reporting (I did certain items on a biweekly or monthly basis that my colleagues in other places did annually or biannually). I also received less risk mitigation and general analytical support than other markets, so was doing more spreadsheets and making more difficult decisions that my colleagues in other places.

    Their markets were more intense in other ways (requiring more customer relationships, more downtime in the summer and fall but overtime at other times of year, requiring more paperwork vs. excel work). It was definitely not true that we had the same jobs, even though we had the same title and boss.

  8. AnotherHRPro*

    #5 – here are a few HR blogs I follow regularly:

  9. AnotherHRPro*

    #4 – There may be many reasons why a colleague receives a bonus and you do not. Unless their job, their performance and long term potential are exactly the same you can not assume that you should also receive the bonus. It is fair to ask the question and I can understand your frustration but I would not assume you are owed this money or recommend that you demand back-pay for it. It would be reasonable to talk to your manager and inquire about how your direct reports bonus structure works any why some individuals/positions are bonus eligible and others are not. As a manager, you should understand how your employees are compensated and what goes into their total comp package.

    1. Joey*

      I can tell you’re in HR. We all know things are rarely if ever exactly the same. and how exactly would you objectively determine long term potential?

  10. AnotherHRPro*

    #2 – You should report this issue. Be vary careful to not show frustration or indicate how bad you think your manager is. Make sure you have your facts straight and share just the facts that you know for sure. The manager asking employees for money is inappropriate. You mention preferential treatment in your letter. Unless you know for a fact that this treatment is going on because of the loaned money I might leave that out as that may just be your perception.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Yes and I’m concerned he may have some sort of gambling or drug problem that is deeper than the issue at hand. I saw this all too much when I was in the restaurant biz. But of course like others say you have to tread carefully and don’t accuse frame it as more of a concern and if there’s any proof or documentation of the special treatment ie copies of the schedule that’s supposed to rotate but clearly isn’t then save that in your arsenal

  11. AnotherHRPro*

    #1 – I find that asking people about what they make is much like asking if they are in Fight Club. First rule of Fight Club is no one talks about Fight Club.

    If you have a good relationship with your departing colleague I think it is fair to ask the question but not to push it. I would take the person out to lunch. Wish them well on their new position. Share that you are frustrated and feel you are under paid but that you have not been able to find benchmarkable positions to compare salaries. See what she is willing to share on the topic but do not push it. Put yourself in her shoes. How would you respond to someone asking directly what you make?

    1. Mike C.*

      There’s no reason it has to be this way, and keeping this “Fight Club” attitude about compensation is a great way to hide systematic discrimination.

      How would you respond to someone asking directly what you make?

      I would tell them what I make, along with a rough history of raises and promotions. This isn’t a crazy thing to ask.

      1. Chocolate lover*

        Unless it was someone I was very close with, I would tell them I’m not comfortable sharing that information with. While I understand the reason for asking, I’m not obligated to tell them.

        1. Joey*

          Why the secrecy about salary when people are asking for a good reason? Are you ashamed of what you make? I don’t get it.

          Are you scared to know how your salary compares?

          1. Chocolate lover*

            There are lots of questions people can ask for a “good reason,” but that doesn’t mean I’m comfortable sharing it. I’m particularly private about many things, and that is one of them (money is an extremely LOADED topic in my family). I’ve had a couple experiences where sharing salary information with co-workers has turned into people escalating to more intrusive questions , and questioning my financial decisions and choices. It’s easier to shut down the conversation if I don’t let it start to begin with.

            1. Mike C.*

              So you aren’t actually bothered by discussing your salary, just additional questions about how you spend your money and the like? There’s no reason one has to follow from the other.

              1. Chocolate lover*

                I am actually uncomfortable discussing my salary, as I said, I’m particularly private about many things.

                1. Joey*

                  If you take some time to think about it youll see it’s an irrational fear.

                  And, you’ll find that it will perpetuate your ignorance of the salaries in your field which will hurt the salary you so desire to hide.

                2. Mike C.*

                  Then why bother discussing the issue if the extent of your discussion is going to be, “I’m not going to discuss this issue”?

              2. Another Job Seeker*

                A few reasons I do not discuss salary:

                1. If I make more than the person with whom I am speaking, he/she may become resentful and try to make things more difficult at work.
                2. If I make less than others, I might be perceived as less valuable to the organization (“if she was so important, she would be making more”).
                3. Salary discussions can lead to other discussions about financial decisions. Like you mentioned, they do not have to, but I cannot control what other people say. It’s easier to not allow conversations you do not want to have to get started than to try to shut them down later.
                4. Even if the person to whom I am speaking does not react negatively to my salary, he/she might discuss it with others who will.

                If I was in an environment of mutual respect and trust, these would not be issues. However, in most organizations, it’s not really realistic to expect your co-workers to be true friends who have your best interests at hert. They are acquaintances and can, in the best of circumstances, become friends. However, sadly, this does not occur often in the workplace.

            2. Chocolate lover*

              I’m not especially afraid of knowing how my salary compares – it’s common knowledge that our positions are underpaid compared to similar positions at other organizations, and our organization is particularly rigid about salary grades, with such a small budget for negotiation, that no one is making dramatically better lol. There are some other generous quality-of-life benefits though.

          2. Not Here or There*

            I think it’s just the general cultural taboo about talking about money. You don’t talk about how much you make because if you make more money than other people around you, it’s considered bragging or at the very least gauche. If you make less, you’ll feel inferior. Even though we shouldn’t, we do have a tendency not only to judge others based on what they make but to also tie our own self-worth to what we make. I made more than two of my co-workers in the same job. But, I made more because not only did I come with more experience, I also took on more responsibility. When they found out that I made more; however, their attitudes towards me changed.
            It’s really unfortunate that money is such a taboo topic, it leads to all sorts of issues. For example, I would really like to sit down and have a conversation with my MIL about her plans and savings for retirement (I have a serious concern that she doesn’t have any savings), but my spouse is diametrically opposed to this because it’s her money and her business. However, if she has no savings, that becomes our business because spouse is her only child and we’ll be the ones she turns to when she can no longer support herself.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              You are right we are socialiZed to think its not proper to discuss salaries amongst coworkers . Not only that I always thought there were policies against it I had no idea it’s illegal. It’s just not good idea generally for reasons others are pointing out others are paid differently for soamu reasons and you should be thinking about your own performance and what if you got a raise and know others didn’t? Just causes awkwardness and resentment unnecessarily. However if this coworker is leaving and you are comfortable with her then sure go for it

              1. Not Here or There*

                I would argue the other side of the coin. I think there is nothing wrong and that it is actually a good idea to be more open about salary and money in general. If others in my department got a pay raise and I did not, I would absolutely want to know because then I could have a conversation with my manager around why I didn’t. In fact, I think it would make managers more likely to proactively have that discussion which would be a good thing. I believe that companies being secretive about salaries actually breeds resentment and awkwardness because it doesn’t give you an opportunity to have conversations with your manager around money. So if you hear that Joe is making more than you and is in the same position, you can’t talk to your manager about it and it makes you feel resentful both towards your company and towards Joe.

                I’ve been the target of coworker resentment over salary, and it was in an office that discouraged discussing pay and was generally very tight lipped about money. While it may not have made a difference, if salary were a less taboo subject in the office, rather than simply being resentful towards me, they might have asked our manager why I made more and he could have told them (I had 5 years more experience and took on more responsibility in the office).

                1. ThursdaysGeek*

                  Yeah, I’d like to know if I’m making less than my co-workers, because then I know to ask the question what I need to do better, so I am worth more. As it is, that’s just one less opportunity to provide me feedback, one less thing I know about my performance.

          3. B*

            You don’t need to get anything. Just like some people like cilantro and some people don’t, it is their preference. I for one do not talk about my salary or money with my colleagues, former colleagues, family, or friends. It is a private matter between my wallet and me. If someone wanted a range I might be willing to go there but that is about it.

            1. Mike C.*

              You don’t think there isn’t anything to be gained in trying to examine why this issue is taboo, especially when this taboo openly and actively screws all of us over? What’s the point of people even posting here if the discussion isn’t furthered in any way?

              You might as well post about your preferences in hot dog toppings.

              1. B*

                You seem to have quite the large chip on your shoulder and are unwilling to hear anyone else’s opinion if it differs from yours. For that reason alone, yes, I would rather discuss my hot dog toppings than anything else with you.

                1. Mike C.*

                  You’re now only posting to make personal comments. This isn’t about me, this is about our work culture and why we do the things we do.

                  Really, the fact of the matter is that folks like you cannot articulate one specific reason why you won’t discuss the issue. Doesn’t it bother you to take such a strong stand (strong enough to insult others about it!) yet you can’t even defend it or say why?

                2. NoPantsFridays*

                  Nice response. Yes, I discuss salary, that’s not an issue. I’ve also discussed 401k contributions and investments (options available to us) with coworkers, since obviously we have the same 401k plan. But when people start with the “How much did you pay for your house?” and “Why do you drive THAT car?” referring to either a car they perceive as below your pay grade, or a car that is “too nice”… I reserve the right to be private about that. No thanks to the interrogation re: why I paid too little or too much for my house. And I’m private about why I’m private about that.

                3. B*

                  I am going to refrain from this discussion as you just seem to want to attack rather than be a part of listening to others opinions.

          4. puddin*

            Because you under perform based on what I heard your salary is. I am going to spread rumors about you, your work ethic, performance, and how you are overpaid. You do not deserve that amount of income therefore I am going to make life difficult for you.

            The above is one reason why people are intimidated to share their income.

            1. LQ*

              People do that anyway. If you are going to assume people are jerks you why would you assume they start being jerks because of this. My salary is public, anyone can look and this doesn’t happen any more than it would anywhere else. Jerks are jerks regardless, if you assume most people are jerks then most people are going to find a way to be jerky.

            2. Mike C.*

              Best of luck to anyone who tries!

              I mean seriously, do you work with Francis Underwood? That’s the sort of thing that’s already going to be happening – if they can make up all this shit about one’s work ethic, then they can make shit up about how much one is being paid.

        2. Mike C.*

          No one is talking about “obligations” here, so hiding behind that reason doesn’t make much sense in the context of a pay discrimination argument.

          As Joey asked, why are you not comfortable?

          1. Colette*

            There are a lot of reasons for not wanting to share salary information. For one thing, many people are unable to judge their own performance – they see the same job title and think “we should be paid the same” and may make life … annoying for colleagues who are paid more. For another, some people use salary as a judgement of worth. And, as Chocolate Lover said, others use salary information to judge how you spend your money.

            There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable sharing, but it’s OK to not want to share, too.

            1. Mike C.*

              What’s not ok is jumping into a conversation looking into the motivations of not wanting to share and saying, “I don’t want to share but I’m not going to say why”. Do you see how it doesn’t really add anything to the conversation?

              1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

                it does add something to it , Mike.

                It tells the people who are prying to buzz off, in very polite terms.

                1. Mike C.*

                  It’s not “prying” to expect someone who has jumped into a discussion about not wanting to discuss an issue to, I don’t know, discuss why they don’t want to talk about an issue.

              2. LQ*

                I do actually think there is value in knowing that some people are so very entrenched in the idea that is is a private thing that they won’t even discuss why with complete strangers with complete anonymity. No one here is asking for any actual salaries. But people won’t even answer why they don’t like sharing that information in a space like this. They could make something up or not engage at all but that some people are so invested in the idea that is must be kept private that they feel the need to say that is a valuable piece of information.

                I would be interested to know if Chocolate lover feels public employees salaries should be public, or CEOs or non profit employees, or any other group where it is currently public information? Are they advocating for making that private? (I assume they do not work in that sphere but does that desire to have it be private play a role when looking for jobs? If a private company made salaries public as a matter of habit would they not apply for a job there?)

                1. Colette*

                  The transparency is really it. If I know what every teapot designer makes, I can judge whether I’m paid fairly or not. If I know what one teapot designer makes, I can’t. Similarly, if a coworker knows what I make, it’s not enough data for them to know whether they’re being paid fairly, and it increases the risk that they might be a pain for me to deal with.

                2. Another Job Seeker*

                  My salary is public information, and I do not think it should be. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent. However, saying that “Person X is paid $Y” does not accomplish that. Saying that “Project A will cost $B per year over the next C years” does accomplish that.

                  I don’t discuss salary, but people who know that they can look it up and where to go to look it up (not everyone has that information) can do so.

              3. Oryx*

                This actually reminds me of the AAM letter from last week about the person who asked about a person’s private life but got all “none of your business” when asked about theirs.

              4. Colette*

                Would it be better to let it be a conversation about people who were fine with sharing, even though that’s not a fair representation of the group?

                And she did provide a reason, which you dismissed.

            2. ThursdaysGeek*

              ‘For one thing, many people are unable to judge their own performance’

              See, but that is a reason why I would like to know what others around me are being paid. If we’re doing the same job and they are getting paid more, then how could I improve my performance to also be worth that?

        3. Ann Furthermore*

          Yep, I agree. Unless it was someone I was very close with and trusted, I would not share this information. It’s no one’s business but my own.

          Once you share it, it’s outside your control who that information is passed to. You can ask someone to keep it confidential, but there’s no guarantee that your request will be honored. Maybe the person will use it to try and justify getting a raise — as in, “Ann makes $X and I should too!” I don’t want to be any part of anything like that, nor do I want there to be any hint that I’m on the sidelines, egging it on.

          Then on the flip side, what if you’re sharing that information and you find out that your colleague makes more than you do? Unless you feel that person’s skills and talents are truly superior to your own, it’s going to be hard for that to eat away at you. Personally, I’m very satisfied with my salary, and I don’t need to know what anyone else makes. In fact, I’m one of the few IT people in my company who has access to that information for every employee, and I stay the hell away from it because there are just some things that aren’t any of my business and this is one of them.

          I worked with a guy years ago who was very dissatisfied with his salary, and made no secret about it — even going so far as to complain to the freaking CEO! He was constantly in people’s cubes (including mine) trying to get them wound up about how underpaid we all were. He would share his salary, and it was clear he wanted me to share mine. I didn’t. I did not want to be any part of his crusade, either directly or indirectly, because he was making a spectacle of himself and not doing himself any favors. He quit, citing being underpaid as his reason.

          I ended up getting promoted to the manager of that group a few months later, and when I was going through the files my predecessor had left I ran across a folder of resumes, including the one for this guy. Also included was the standard list of questions from the website that he’d answered. There was a question about salary requirements, and it turns out that the salary this guy ranted about, the salary he felt was so unfair that he shouted from the rooftops about it for months, the salary that was so offensive that it caused him to quit in a huff, was smack in the middle of the range he’d named. So what it all comes down to is that he didn’t do his homework and low-balled himself. It was his own fault for not doing his homework and not negotiating more skillfully.

          1. Joey*

            Doesn’t it make for a happier and more productive environment if people know exactly where they stand and the business reason for it.

            For example, wouldn’t it be great to talk to a lower paid employee and say “do what Jane does and I’ll advocate raising your salary up to hers.” And wouldn’t it be great to say “Jane, you’re my most valuable employee, see?”

            And, as a manager having to have those discussions would keep your unconscious biases in check.

            1. Mike C.*

              Frankly, it’s a more honest and effective way of doing business. If I want to make more money, and I know for a fact that I can make more money by going in a specific direction my company needs, then I end up with more money and my company ends up with what they needed. How is that not a win for everyone involved?

          2. Mike C.*

            You can’t “do your homework” if no one ever talks about their salary, and given the price women have to pay for appearing “too pushy” or worse, pay shouldn’t be based on negotiation, it should instead be based on market rates and the value a particular employee brings to a company.

            And if I find out my colleage makes more than me, I spend my time trying to figure out what they do that I don’t so I can earn a similar range. Knowing that someone makes more than me (or seeing company pay bands, published wages, etc) along with concrete expectations means that I can better take my career in my hands while adding value to the company.

            All this stuff about petty politics assumes that your coworkers cannot act like adults. While I perfectly understand that this is the case sometimes, it’s not the case most of the time.

            1. Stranger than fiction*

              I hear us mike, but I think they more often don’t act like adults that’s my experience anyhow jaded as it sounds

            2. Ann Furthermore*

              “While I perfectly understand that this is the case sometimes, it’s not the case most of the time.”

              If we’re talking about anything other than money matters, I agree with you. But people are weird and touchy about money.

              There are ways to do your homework regarding salaries that do not include marching into someone’s cubicle and grilling them about how much they make which is what this guy (not a woman) was doing. There are websites, blogs, discussion groups, and one placement agency I’m aware of publishes a salary survey every year.

              If a co-worker came to me and asked for some resources on salaries I would happily tell them all the ways I’m aware of to research this. Because it’s important to be informed so you can adroitly navigate the salary negotiation waters, because it can be tricky, and also because most employers are going to be motivated to get you in the door for the least amount of money possible and aren’t inclined to be forthcoming with this type of information. But a co-worker who asks me how much I make is going to get the answer, “An amount that I feel fairly represents my skills and abilities.”

              1. Mike C.*

                But don’t you think it’s weird that money is such a touchy subject? How we’re culturally supposed to keep it all a big secret and pretend we aren’t working for a paycheck and yet it is the single most important determinant to things like one’s quality of life, access to food, water, shelter, good education, healthcare, legal protection and so on?

                I’m curious in understanding why.

                1. Stephanie*

                  (I’m with you. Is it weird.)

                  I think it’s because (rightly or wrongly) salary is tied to worth and it is tough to admit that (at least economically) our society values investment bankers who shuffle around nebulous forms of money than teachers. I’d guess, too, people are afraid of asking for fear that they find out that someone makes more money than them.

                  I picked up once that an acquaintance seemed miffed I made more money than her (she out earns me now by a ton now, lol). I realized it was because she viewed that since she had a more elite background and did (in her mind) more important work, that she should have been making more.

                  In a similar vein, I had no clue my benefits at my old job were terrible until I asked around.

                2. Ann Furthermore*

                  It is weird. Like you said, it’s at the heart of everything we do. Just yesterday I tried to explain to my 6 year old, in very simple terms, that pretty much everything you want or need in life costs money. She asked why my husband and I have to go to work every day. We’ve also been trying to teach her about earning money, by giving her a small amount (like 50 cents) when she helps us do something outside of her normal chores, and she puts it in her piggy bank.

                  But people have very different ideas about money and how it should be handled, and I think that’s the source of the weirdness. Some don’t mind being open about it, and some think it should be a closely guarded secret. Some people don’t mind spending everything they make, and others think you need to save every penny and live like a pauper. Those ideas, and all the ones in between the extremes, are formed by people’s individual backgrounds and experiences, and no 2 are quite the same.

                  And it’s hard not to be judgmental about the choices people make regarding money too. One of my siblings is 10 years older than I am, and manages money the way I did when I was 22 (we’re in our 40’s and 50’s, respectively), and as a result is constantly reaching out to my mom for money. It drives me nuts because I think it comes down to just being irresponsible and careless, and why should my mom, who is elderly, be put in that position? Granted, she’s financially comfortable, but she should be able to spend her money on what she wants, not subsidize her kids. But the things I prioritize and think are important are not necessarily the same as those of my sibling, nor anyone else. And it’s my mom’s choice to make those loans, not mine.

                  I had another friend years ago who had a HUGE chip on his shoulder about having grown up poor. He was always terribly resentful of other people we knew being able to afford to buy nice cars, or live in nice places while he was struggling to make ends meet, and had a weird entitlement mindset about deserving the finer things in life, even though he hadn’t really paid his dues. He derisively called me a “rich girl” once when we were debating something. He’d joined my family for holidays several times. My parents had a huge, beautiful home in the mountains that was pretty jaw-droppingly spectacular.

                  What he didn’t get was that my parents started with nothing, worked their butts off all their lives, saved their money, and were able to build their dream home when they retired. They had a few turns of good luck, but it was mostly due to making the most of their opportunities and working hard. He had this idea that I was some sort of wealthy heiress, and that any time I needed money I could just call my parents. That was not the case at all — I worked my way through college and paid my own way, and made it through some really tough financial times. If there had been a truly dire emergency (like needing a kidney or something) my parents would have helped me out, but other than that, the expectation was that I was on my own. We met when I was living in the basement of a friend’s house and paying $300 a month in rent because that was all I could afford at the time. But he didn’t get that…his perception of me changed when he found out that I “came from money,” even though that was a faulty assumption.

                  My boss, who is a very frugal person, thinks I’m horribly frivolous because I hire people to clean my house. My take is that I’ve reached the point where I’m comfortable admitting that I really, really hate housework, and I really, really suck at it. Right now, I’m fortunate enough to be able to pay someone to do it for me. If circumstances changed and we had to cut our spending, that would be the first thing to go. But for now, it’s money I’m willing to spend.

                  It’s such a loaded topic, for so many reasons, and honestly, I don’t have the wherewithal to try and change anyone’s mindset about it. So I just choose to keep it very private, and discuss it with a select few.

      2. LQ*

        I agree. I don’t see any problem with this and I don’t understand why so many people are so stressed about it. But then I’ve always had jobs where my salary is public record. I don’t see much need to hide it? What is the value in being super secretive about it?

        1. Mike C.*

          Some nations make all tax records a matter of open record for transparency. Seems like a great way to catch fraud if you ask me.

          1. LQ*

            I’m not sure about catching fraud. But I don’t see much value in keeping it secret. Secret leads to being able to very easily hiding things like underpaying one group compared to another.

            But then I’m a very big believer in the work I do should relate to the pay I get.

    2. AW*

      How would you respond to someone asking directly what you make?

      A couple of years ago I’d have told them they could just Google it.

      I find it odd that in the USA we simultaneously view asking co-workers about their pay to be rude while forcing government employees to make their pay public knowledge.

      For the brief period I worked for the government, anyone could go on a web site and look up what I was getting paid. I literally just looked up that the highest paid Associate Professor at my alma mater makes $258,109.92. All you have to do is search for [State Name] state employee salary and you’ll get the official state web site with specific salary info. You can even put in a specific person’s name if you want.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that everyone’s salary be public knowledge, I just find it odd that attitudes toward salary information are so skewed toward “it must be private at all costs” given that a sizable chunk of the population has their info public.

      The only time I tried to ask someone what they used to make (I was trying to figure out what a good number for an entry level position was and he was at senior level at the time) he freaked out at me. Very loudly at work.

      1. OP#1*

        Hi All. Thanks for your comments. I’d like to think that I have a close relationship with this co-worker. Actually I’ve already tried to ask the question although I did not put it out there bluntly like “So, how much did they pay you?” I tried to discuss salary structure with her since our salary includes base and incentives. I asked her if her structure changed when she transferred. She did not share the exact figure but did tell me how I should be negotiating for the structure to protect my own benefit. I am quite grateful for all her insights. At this point, the dollar amount of the salary doesn’t really matter now. I believe if I can survive and shine in my new role. I’ll be in a better position to negotiate a better deal for myself.

    3. jag*

      “I find that asking people about what they make is much like asking if they are in Fight Club. First rule of Fight Club is no one talks about Fight Club.”

      This is propaganda that employers use to maintain information superiority over employees, undermining employees ability to bargain well or complain about unfair treatment. Sadly many employees buy into it.

  12. Anon369*

    Alison, as to your comments on #1 about the NLRB – in practice, this prohibition against banning employees from talking salary really only applies to the lowest-level employees in an org chart, right? If you’re a supervisor (which I understand is defined pretty broadly and includes many many people), are employers permitted to prohibit you from discussing? Or is it that you’re (generally) always permitted to discuss salary with people at your own level?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The NLRA excludes “supervisors,” which they define as anyone who has authority to, “assign” work to other employees or who must “responsibly direct” other employees, as long as they use “independent judgment” in doing so. “Supervisors” under their definition are usually people who would be excluded from a collective bargaining unit represented by a labor union because they’re part of the management of the company rather than its labor force. But yes, that does mean that there are plenty of people not covered by their prohibition on rules against discussing pay. That said, most companies that have that policy apply it to everyone, and thus violate the law.

      1. Anon369*

        I understand. Those lines don’t work that well in companies where there is a lot of hierarchy!

  13. plain_jane*

    #1 – Instead of talking specifically about her salary, I’m wondering if you have a good enough relationship that you could talk about this role and ask her experience with salary negotiations with the company. She doesn’t need to divulge her salary to give you a range, or ideas for how to do things like having a negotiated one-time bonus at the 6 month “your salary is now being adjusted because we see you in this role long term” that basically retroactively makes up for you not getting the raise in tandem with the new job.

  14. Joey*

    #4. Maybe. Are you a woman and is there any business reason to justify why they might have paid him more?

  15. infj*

    Thanks Alison! I have been wondering for years how much my coworker makes. I asked him today and found out we’re making the same.

  16. Must Be Anon For This*

    Re #1 – I can’t ask how much other people make, or how much vacation they get, or anything else about compensation because our managers have told us if we do, and they find out, we’ll be fired. They seem to be oblivious of the NLRB rules, and I have no doubt we would get fired, but not for that reason. We’d have no recourse because it’s all verbal threats. Nothing in writing.

    1. Mike C.*

      You can (and should) file something with the NLRB, or maybe your state labor board if they also have regulations on this. You aren’t the first person to be verbally threatened against the law, and you can file such complaints anonymously.

      Your employer is playing a very dangerous game. Their threat may keep people quiet now, but if it came down to a court case, perjury is a much greater threat.

    2. Anon369*

      See my question above – if you can be considered a supervisor, then I don’t think the NLRB rules apply anymore and your managers may be correct.

  17. Anon Accountant*

    #1 If they are leaving and are comfortable discussing it and your inquiry is polite I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t discuss that and gain a better understanding of how salary structure stacks up in your company.

  18. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #4 – I would not let that slip. I would insist on it — but also keep in mind that retroactive bonuses and raises can end up costing you a bigger chunk of that payout in taxes. You WILL get more money – but if a retro bonus that you should have received in 2014 – and didn’t — or a retroactive raise (often paid as a “stay bonus”) is given to you in 2015 as an apology/counter-offer/”we forgot” gesture — you may not catch as much of it in your pocket as you’d like.

    It does not always “all come out in the wash”. If this happens late in the year, a smaller company may “negotiate” that they pay half of a retro bonus/salary adjustment in one year, the other half in the next – to try to mitigate any tax damage against that money.

  19. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    #4 – one more thing. The longer you let it slip — the less likely management will act. When too much time has gone by, they may laugh it off as “water under the bridge – ha ha ha”.

  20. AW*

    #2 – I’ve seen at least two Judge Judy episodes and I think one People’s Court episode about bosses borrowing money from employees and at least two of them were a restaurant manager borrowing from hourly employees. I seriously don’t understand how an employer can have the gall to borrow money from someone they KNOW makes less than they do, at least at that job. How does one essentially say, “Hey, give me some of that paycheck back?” How can someone justify that in their head?

    Definitely say something and definitely get out.

    1. Colette*

      They’re not asking for some of it back – it was never theirs to start with, because it belonged to the business.

      But it’s definitely not ok.

  21. AW*

    #4) You’d have a better argument for this if it were all of your colleagues who were getting bonuses (particularly in your own region) and not just this one guy in a different region. But it sounds like you don’t even know your colleague’s base salary so you don’t even know if they make more than you or not. It’s entirely possible you both make about the same thing (or they make less) only your pay was guaranteed and their pay was dependent on earning those bonuses.

  22. Anonymous Coward*

    As a job seeker, I would be so pleased to get the response Alison suggests in #3 for a “strong candidate”. It’s considerate of the job seeker’s time and priorities, and it opens up a conversation that would be tough for a candidate to begin without encouragement. #3, thanks for thinking through your company’s options for keeping applicants informed.

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