Pay Transparency: Why We Need to Talk about Salary & How to Do It

Published on September 29, 2021

Colleagues happily discussing salary

Pay transparency is a simple concept — being open about how much you earn (or the benefits you receive). But since money is one of our last taboos, there’s a “hush hush” attitude towards talking about our salaries. It brings up a lot of emotions, anxieties and conflicts.

The Money Taboo Prevents Pay Transparency

While writing this article, I informally surveyed people over Instagram, through text and in person. Many people directly alluded to the taboo when asked if they discussed salary with friends, family and coworkers:

“No! And I wish we did!”

“I was always told not to discuss salary in careers.”

“Honestly I try not to. Money is a very personal thing to discuss. Even with friends and family because you never know where it could lead.”

Image of workers standing on stacks of coins of differing heights

Opening the Conversation for Pay Transparency

Some are more open about it — even if they won’t initiate the conversation first: “I do/am open to discussing my salary however I do find it makes a number of my friends uncomfortable so I don’t broach that subject unless they bring it up….”  

In one case, they will ask anyone who’s willing to talk, friends, coworkers and managers alike: “Some people are still uncomfortable when I ask them, but it’s less common, I find. I think it’s important to do that, especially inside a company. The myth that it should be a secret benefits no one but the head honchos.”  

Pay Transparency Is Discouraged in Many Workplaces

Even though the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects workers’ rights to discuss their pay in the United States, research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that informal pay secrecy has increased in the workplace.

When they conducted the first national survey asking workers if their bosses allowed them to discuss wages and salaries, half of all workers were either banned or discouraged from talking about pay.

Some states have passed legislation that specifically targets employers who implement pay secrecy policies. (FYI: The U.S. Department of Labor lists all the equal pay and pay transparency protections in the United States). Canada introduced new pay transparency measures in 2020. Businesses with more than 100 employees will be mandated to provide more detailed salary data

We know that salary secrecy is a problem. So what can we do about it?

Two colleagues discussing pay transparency

We Need to Talk about Money

Financial planner Zena Amundsen says that for many people, conversational topics like politics, religion and sex are fair game — but money is still off the table. Amundsen, who is the owner of Astra Financial Services in Regina, says the culture has to change — we need to talk about money.

While it can be an awkward conversation, it’s important — especially for women. Worldwide, women still only make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. Without information about who makes what in the workplace, the wage gap will continue.  

A reader on Instagram chimed in that pay transparency is key to heathier workplaces: “It also promotes accountability + holds management responsible for truly equitable workplaces. Don’t trust places that don’t let you talk about salary.”

Financial planner Zena Amundsen says our culture needs to change – we need to talk about money. Photo by Greg Huszar.

Millennials More Open to Talking about Money

Amundsen adds that she’s seen a shift in the marketplace – baby boomers are not talking about money, but millennials are.

“Millennials are starting to talk about and want to know how much people make, and they’re wanting to grasp this,” she says. “And they’re wanting to know the salary grid… it’s up to us to help empower the young people that they can start talking about this, especially with the pay gap.”

Here’s how to start the salary conversation.

1.     Practice

“it’s a delicate conversation with coworkers and so one of the tips is practice saying it,” Amundsen says.

Think about who you’re going to approach and how you’ll start the conversation. Jot down some talking points, or practice what you’ll say in the mirror without anger or emotion.  

“It has to be thoughtful and with purpose,” she says.

2.     Build trust and narrow into their pay range

Amundsen recommends building trust with your coworker — you don’t want to just blurt out, “How much do you make?” She recommends starting the conversation by asking about their pay range: “’So, can I confirm the salary grid and where are you on that grid?’ And so you’re easing into that conversation rather than just jumping into, ‘Exactly how much do you make?’”

3.     Shelf your emotions

Ask yourself where you’re coming from: a place of anger and resentment? Or from a place of learning and self-improvement?

“If I know that you’re coming from a really dark place and you’re already angry, but you don’t even know what I make yet… then I’m not going to want to share,” Amudsen says. “So it needs to come from a place of love and just fact-finding. Shelf the dark emotions.”

With these types of conversations, she says you need to shift your thinking from a scarcity mindset (the belief that there are a limited number of resources to go around) to an abundance mindset (the belief there are enough resources for everyone).

4.     Build up to a bigger conversation

Once you know what you’re making compared to your coworkers, you can determine if it’s time to negotiate a raise or bonus. Amudsen wishes she’d had that talk early on in her career. 

“I looked back and I’m so upset at myself because I found out later how much less I was making,” she says. “And I know if I had just stepped up and asked and brought it to the table, something would have happened.” 

5.     Start the money conversation early

Amundsen recommends starting the conversation early – right at the dinner table. Talk to the young people in your life — your kids, young people you mentor, students. She recently coached her 22-year-old daughter through asking for a raise (and she got it — and a bonus too for all her hard work). 

“Teens will start to want to ask their parents and say, ‘How much do you make?’ Here’s the most typical response from a parent: ‘Well, not enough.’ And so now all of a sudden that just got shot down and we don’t talk about it anymore. And so this is the problem when we’re going into the workforce.”

6.     Practice makes perfect

While it may be an awkward conversation in the beginning, Amundsen says it will get easier with time. Talk to people. Talk to your partner, your friends, your coworkers, your parents, your kids, relatives — anyone who will listen.  

Cheers to breaking the money taboo 🥂! This month we’re toasting to financial wellness. Learn why you need to start investing (even if you’re terrified).

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The Author
Silvia Pikal is a writer and editor based in Calgary, Alberta. She loves following her curiosity wherever it takes her, telling stories about the making of a ghost opera or the latest developments in health care. Her fiction and non-fiction have been published in dozens of magazines, a short story anthology and most notably, on Blindman Brewing beer cans. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s going on adventures with her husband, Derek, and their spunky rescue dog, Mala.