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Dear Heidi: How do you handle money questions?

Updated: Jul 8, 2020

Someone asked me recently about my salary, and I was taken aback. Money can be a sensitive topic. Questions about one’s finances can seem over the top and rude. But no one wants to make a big deal about things. How do you handle it without looking like you’re making a big deal out of nothing?

When it relates to financial issues, the rules of etiquette remain steady; it is vulgar to discuss money. But, etiquette is complicated and multi-faceted, even within a single subject. Today, it is still vulgar to either ask how much money someone has or to brag about how much money you have, but etiquette and discussions about salaries are much more complex and evolving.

There are several schools of thought regarding transparency around salaries. It has been customary to follow the old rules of etiquette, and never speak about your salary. This philosophy is changing because of the benefits of transparency.

For instance, in his TEDx talk Management Researcher David Burkus said that salary transparency helps to close the gender pay gap and create a better workplace. He explained that organizations that embrace pay transparencies, like the United States Government, have narrower wage gaps than organizations with a salary secrecy culture.

It is legal in the US to discuss your salary, but is it wise, and who's talking? A Bankrate study revealed that discussing wages varies across generations. Millennials are more likely to do so; 33% would share their salary with a co-worker vs 18% of Baby Boomers. Age and salary disclosure does seem to follow cultural norms. It once was taboo to speak about your salary with a colleague, so it is not surprising that Boomers and the Silent Generation rarely discuss this at all.

In certain situations, disclosing your salary to a co-worker can be beneficial, but there are some ground rules. If your goal is to help promote a climate of wage equality, do it respectfully. If you ask someone how much they make, be prepared to share your salary as well. Do this very discreetly, in a private manner, and keep the conversation in confidence.

Be ready for what you might hear and what you will do with that information. If you find you are making less, decide when and how you will present it to your manager. If you make more, how will that make you feel? How can you be empathetic?

You also have to consider when it could be detrimental to disclose your salary. Glassdoor points out that in salary negotiation for a new position, it may not be in your best interest to reveal how much you make because you could be leaving money on the table. The salary you start with determines the rest of your earnings at that firm if you only receive a specific percentage increase annually.

But first, do some research. Find out what the salary ranges are for the job through tools such as Glassdoor's Know Your Worth or LinkedIn's Estimator Salary. If during a salary negotiation, they ask how much you currently make, you can politely say that you would prefer to focus on what you could bring to the organization, your talents, expertise and skills.

To conclude, will you ask a colleague about their salary? The choice is yours to make, but be mindful of how you will handle this knowledge, and make your request with respect and kindness.


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