How to Discuss Salary with Coworkers

discussing salary at work

This article is not about asking for a raise.

It’s not about suing your employer.

Nor is it about negotiating a salary during a job interview.

It’s about the best ways to navigate the delicate topic of salaries when it inevitably comes up among coworkers.

Despite what you may have heard, it’s not something to avoid, just something to do with savvy.

What’s the Controversy?

What’s the problem with talking about salary, and if it’s so bad, why does anyone do it, aside from silly human-nature reasons?

Well, the obvious problems that can arise such as jealousies, cattiness or foolhardy attempts to get raises will thread their way through our tips in a moment. But another reason some people don’t talk about salary at work is that many workplaces have policies forbidding them to do so, even if those policies are illegal.

On the flip side is a political movement for greater transparency. This can mean employers publishing salaries, or it can mean employees seeking out the information.

For example, a software developer named Lauren Voswinkel started a Twitter campaign called #talkpay to openly discuss salaries and to encourage others to do so.

This was virtual rather than at the workplace itself, but it touches on the idea of using discussions of salary to redress wrongs —Voswinkel found she was underpaid compared to co-workers. The idea of salary transparency narrowing the salary gap between genders has been gaining traction.

So if we agree that some salary discussion is going to be inevitable, even if you’re not the one to bring it up, let’s look at some tips for having discussions about salary that could possibly be empowering, while avoiding some of the animosities and other pitfalls that may occur.

1. Have a Clear Goal in Mind

First, if someone else brings up salary, and you basically don’t want to find out you’re underpaid or anything else that will make you uncomfortable, remove yourself from the situation. But if you’re going to look into the matter, be clear on why you are doing so.

It can be useful to know salaries of people in higher-up positions analogous to those you might like to apply for in the future. Or, understanding the salary structure in your organization can help you get a sense of your advancement opportunities (salary-wise).

However, if you’re hoping that so-and-so doesn’t make more than you or coming at it from any other gossip-like angle, you may wish to hit the brakes first.

2. Don’t Let Hearsay Upset You

You may have had the experience of hearing a second-hand account of someone’s salary. Often, this comes up expressly because the person spreading the rumor is upset at how high the salary is.

If you’re not getting someone’s salary straight from him or her, don’t let it cause envy. Numbers are easy to mix up — you may be getting upset over inaccurate information.

3. Weigh the Information

When you initially hear that someone is making ten G’s a year more than you, it will knock you off balance. It can be easy to initially forget that one of your higher-earning coworkers has ten years’ experience on you or a degree you don’t have.

A higher-paid coworker may be in a similar position but may have duties beyond yours — there are many contingencies that could lead to the discrepancy, and they may be ones that you won’t always be able to recognize immediately. It could take an inquiry or two, as appropriate.

4. Small Conversations

If you’re going to bring up a conversation about salary, try to do it either one-on-one or in a small group. You’ll probably get the best results from people with whom you’ve built up a lot of trust already — it’s not a conversation for everyone in the break room.

It may also be good to try to have the conversation with employees within your department or who aren’t likely to have salaries all over the map.

Do you talk about your salary with coworkers? Do you see a benefit to doing so?

(Photo by Tax Credits / CC BY)

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


  1. Ben on the 5th August

    Good post. I tend not to discuss salary at all because there are only three probable outcomes:

    1. I’ll feel bad because I’m earning less than somebody else

    2. The other person will feel bad because my salary is higher

    3. We both feel ok…

    For me the net emotional outcome of these conversations is zero – somebody feels good while another feels bad. So why bother?


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