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'You're Making What?'
Salary Contrasts and Calculated Covetousness

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

A friend of mine once found out over a casual lunch conversation that a male counterpart -- same job, hired after her -- was making a good chunk of change more than she was.

This factoid kept her up at night. It was the topic of conversation over fat glasses of wine. She would blame herself one minute for not having negotiated a higher salary when she was hired, then in the next breath, she would rant about the wage gap between men and women. We didn't know why he made more. It just hurt to know he did.

Finally, after much urging (it's so much easier to tell a friend to do this than to do it yourself), she decided to talk to her boss.

But a new dilemma arose: She couldn't tell her boss she had found out what this other person was making, could she?

After some thought, she simply explained to her manager why she deserved more money. She eventually earned more, but it didn't match what her counterpart was already collecting.

Why is sharing salary information on the same conversational level as telling strangers family secrets?

Could it be embarrassment that you'll appear less "important"? Or weak because you couldn't negotiate better? Do you just not want to get worked up if you find out Sally makes more than you do? Or has your company actually told you that talking about salaries is forbidden?

Let's take that last point first. It would be a violation of the National Labor Relations Act to prohibit employees from discussing salary unless there is a substantial business reason to prohibit it.

The reason? Talking about salary and work conditions is a first stage in organizing a union. So if a company interferes with that, it is violating laws that were made to protect workers. So there you have it. You may talk about your salary at work. If you dare.

"If your supervisor says you can't talk about salary, you'll probably listen," acknowledged Brian Nuterangelo, a labor and employment lawyer with Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP in the District.

But that's the thing: Many of us wouldn't dare turn to our podmate and ask for the stapler and information about the person's salary in the same breath. "It causes discontent between employees and a very ugly work environment," wrote a reader who e-mailed me after this subject was raised in a recent online discussion.

Jan Hyatt, a consultant who works in Columbia, acknowledged that, as an employee, she would love to know what everyone else makes. But she knows that can open Pandora's box. "There have been positions I've had that if I found out that someone was making more than me, I'd probably flip out," she said. "It would probably add a whole layer of complexity to a job."

There is that whole bitterness issue, isn't there? Finding out a counterpart or replacement makes more than you do causes nothing but pain. Every little birthday cake the boss buys could be part of the salary you're missing out on. It feeds suspicions of favoritism. The excitement about work disappears, and the questions start: If Sally makes more than I do, does that mean Bob does, too?

(And here I'll mention that, yes, I know federal workers all know at what level everyone is paid. But even with that, workers will be frustrated they are at different levels, particularly if that silly Barbara is at a higher grade. Will we ever be happy? Save those thoughts for another column.)

Hyatt, however, also acknowledged that as an employer -- she helped build a start-up and spent a lot of time dealing with salary issues -- it's just too complicated. "If you're a mom, you understand," she said, laughing. "You play these games to make sure everyone is happy."

Maybe some salary transparency would actually help matters, some say. What would it hurt to know what the person we replaced made when she first started? We would know when to push for a higher salary, or maybe we would be content with the pay we receive now.

"Being transparent about not just salary, but everything about being an employee, it automatically establishes a certain level of trust between an employer and employee and employee to employee," said a woman who works for a nonprofit firm in the District. "When there is this lack of discussion and lack of transparency about certain issues, such as bonuses and salary, it creates walls, which ultimately makes for less efficiency."

Of course, that openness is something of a fantasy, which even this woman acknowledged. No matter the reason, if your counterpart makes more than you do and you find out, you won't be happy.

"There are so many other things that go into it," Hyatt said of her managing days. Maybe someone came in and simply negotiated future pay raises. Or maybe Hyatt offered a higher salary to someone who took an important class that other workers didn't.

All right. So maybe there was a good reason for my friend's colleague to earn more than she did. She thinks she wants to know. But she probably never will.

Join Amy from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday to discuss your life at work (and salary, if you want to share) athttp://washingtonpost.com.You can e-mail her with your column ideas atlifeatwork@washpost.com.

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