We Aren’t Talking About Salary with Our Co-workers (But Should)

Is salary a taboo topic in your workplace? You can change the dynamic — and possibly up your salary.

co-workers discussing salary
Updated May 13, 2024
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Talking about how much you earn isn’t the most comfortable conversation to have. Whether you’re at the dinner table or the work lunchroom, what you earn can be a very vulnerable topic for women and men alike.

An exclusive FinanceBuzz survey of 1,000 Americans found that women are more likely to talk about salary with their best friend than men are. But at work, it’s reversed: men are more likely to share their salary with co-workers.

Women are at a disadvantage in the workplace when it comes to salary. They statistically earn about 80 cents for every dollar men do. It’s much less for Hispanic and black women, who earn 53% and 61%, respectively.

Research also shows that even when women do build up their courage to ask for more money, they don’t get it. According to a Harvard Business Review study, women ask for a raise just as often as men do, but their requests are turned down more often. It happens at the best jobs and the worst jobs. Even with as much as Anne Hathaway makes in what is arguably a great job, she has been on the record criticizing Hollywood for its profound gender inequality and treating actresses as easily replaceable when salary discrepancies surface.

While more open discussion about salary won't fix these disparities overnight, it would help. There are signs that times might be changing. Our survey also finds that Millennials are more likely to discuss salary compared to their Generation X counterparts.

Why we should talk about salary

Talking about our personal finances is largely still taboo, but that doesn’t mean it should stay that way. Discussing how to make money and how much money you make, whether that’s less or more than your peers, is important to recognizing your value. For some people, it might be a chance to simply earn equal pay for equal work.

Career coach Melanie L. Denny of Your Career Empowerment Coach says the topic is important to discuss, especially with the people you see at work every day.

“Bringing these topics to the forefront empowers employees and allows them to advocate for themselves and demand fair wages,” Denny says. “Knowledge is power and eliminating salary secrecy arms employees with even more bargaining power and ultimately balances the salary scales.”

If you’re the one who earns more than your co-workers, you can give them the power they need to increase their earning potential. If you’re the one who’s earning less, you should be able to see how to make more money by growing your salary. You can use the salary of others as a guide to growing your own.

What's holding us back

Saying we’re going to be open about salary and actively participating in the discussion aren’t exactly the same thing. It’s not as easy as it sounds — and may not be allowed due to some company policies.

“Many companies forbid the conversation of salary among coworkers,” Denny says. “So fear of getting in trouble for exchanging salary details is a strong driving force.”

Keep in mind that you have a legal right to discuss salary at work, thanks to the National Labor Relations Act. So if your company has a policy in place that doesn’t allow it, remember that federal rights do.

But it might not be your company’s protocol that’s holding you back. It could be much broader than that.

“A negative stigma has developed around the topic of money and we don’t want to be judged for bringing up the conversation,” Denny says. “It is seen as intrusive and even rude to ask, ‘how much do you make?’”

Along with that, by not talking about it, we tend to feel that it will go away. Denny says by avoiding these conversations, we don’t have to deal with them.

“By not talking about it, we don’t have to face these uncomfortable realities head on,” she says. “So, we avoid the conversations to avoid conflict.”

Is open salary the answer?

Instead of being secretive about salary, some companies are on the other side of the spectrum, making sure salary isn’t hidden away from employees.

Open salary is when companies are transparent about what everyone makes, from the top of the chain all the way down to the lowest-paid workers. Although pay transparency varies by company, the gist is that everyone knows what everyone is making. Pay isn’t something to whisper in secret; rather, it’s an open, honest, and frank discussion about what you’re worth.

“I would love to see a world where salary is an open topic for anyone to discuss,” Denny says. “It would expose a lot of the disparities between genders and race and create a more fair playing field.”

Some companies are upfront about how much they make, and it’s been for the better. LinkedIn reports that social media management platform Buffer made salaries public in 2013 — but only after employees agreed to it. And the move paid off: job applications for openings at the time doubled within a month.

How to start the conversation

If you’re normally one to shy away from talking about how much you earn — or asking what someone else makes — you might feel uneasy about shifting your beliefs. There are a few ways you can broach the topic in a respectable manner.

If you’re struggling to bring it up, becoming friends with your co-workers might be an important first step. This might be the time to gain trust and find things in common with your colleagues before jumping into talking about salary. Otherwise, Denny says you can bring up money-related topics to get a sense of what your co-workers respond to.

“Ask other less intrusive questions first, like how much they paid for a nice bag or watch,” she says. “See how they respond. Watch their body language. If they feel uneasy, then maybe this isn’t the best person to compare paychecks with.”

It might be a good idea to bring up your own money-related earnings instead of asking what others make. Denny suggests mentioning a recent raise or bonus you’ve received to a colleague. Taking them out to celebrate might give them a nudge to share their own earnings.

There’s also something about being at work that could turn off money talks with your co-workers. Work is an easy spot to be overheard.

“Try not to bring up this topic in the office,” Denny says. “Take a colleague to lunch or wait for happy hour to bring it up. You never know who’s watching or listening by the water cooler.”

Don’t be afraid to discuss money with your coworkers. One discussion could be a defining factor in your career.


FinanceBuzz ran this survey through Pollfish, collecting 1,000 responses from online users in the U.S. on June 3, 2019.

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Author Details

Dori Zinn

Dori Zinn is a personal finance journalist with work featured in Huffington Post, Quartz, Wirecutter, Bankrate, Credit Karma, and others. She loves helping people learn to be better with money.