Salaries. The Last Unshareable?

In this era of oversharing, there’s very little that we’re not happy to divulge to our friends and followers. But going public about what you earn takes it to another level.

Earlier this month, Pittsburgh-based programmer Lauren Voswinkel, encouraged people to go public with their earnings on social media, via the hashtag #talkpay. But while the hashtag trended on Twitter, only an estimated 1,300 people actually divulged their salaries, with most #talkpay tweets simply commenting on the discussion rather than revealing the tweeter’s earnings. But why?

When it comes to sharing, very little is off limits. From the content of our lunchtime sandwich to the content of our babies’ nappies; medical problems, family deaths, relationship issues and bizarre sexual predilections…it’s all fair game. Heck, there’s even a website dedicated to our propensity to tell people what they don’t want to know. But when it comes to our salaries, most people prefer to keep it to themselves.

Salary secrecy is a conundrum that Independents United, an agency which provides its clients with business transformation the entrepreneurial way, has been tussling with for a while. IU identifies its workforce as co-owners of the company; it’s an innovative model that places trust, shared responsibility and transparency at the heart of the organisation. As a co-owner every member of staff has access to the business’s inner-workings and accounting reports, and as a co-owner everyone has the rights and responsibilities that come with the title. It’s a refreshing set-up — and it’s one of the reasons why I chose to work there. But even in this caring, sharing environment, the suggestion that everyone’s salary is made public has made a few folk uncomfortable.

To some, telling people what you earn has overtones of Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character; it’s vulgar and not something that nice people with good manners do. Perhaps it’s something to do with our Britishness — a culture that prides itself on our ability to ‘make do’ and ‘get on with it’, and where showing off is frowned upon.

But it’s not just us Brits who think that salaries are for private consumption only; only last year Jill Abramson was fired as editor of the New York Times because, according to the New Yorker, “Abramson discovered that her pay and her pension benefits as both executive editor and, before that, as managing editor were considerably less than the pay and pension benefits of Bill Keller, the male editor whom she replaced in both jobs. ‘She confronted the top brass,’ one close associate said, and this may have fed into the management’s narrative that she was pushy.”

As individuals, we have a complicated relationship with our own salary; rarely do we see it as a simple and fair reflection of our worth in the workplace. It’s the sum of our entire employment history, the luck, politics and professional relationships that we encounter along the way, our upbringing, our gender, and the broader economic and cultural landscape of the different industries in which we work. Simple and fair, it is not.

However, these nuances aren’t necessarily taken into account by people passing judgement on someone else’s earnings. To others, an individual’s salary is perceived to be a reliable proxy for how good they are at their job. Job titles are vague at best and differ between companies, but a £ is a £ and a $ is a $ right across the land. Rightly or wrongly, it’s easy to make a snap judgement about someone and their capabilities based on what they earn.

Indeed, when a (female) friend of mine revealed her salary to a (male) colleague she was asked if there was something wrong with her. “Nothing that a Y chromosome couldn’t fix” was her answer. In fact, the culture of secrecy over earnings can itself lead to pay inequality because many women tend to be unaware they’re worse off than men (although, interestingly, this isn’t the case at IU — one of the few companies which bucks the trend).

Very few of us think we’re paid ‘the right amount’. Most of us go about our lives assuming that we’re underpaid and a handful of jammy people take satisfaction from thinking that they’re paid well for what they do. Assumption is one thing, but knowing it for a fact — and knowing precisely where you come in the office pecking order — isn’t going to make anyone feel good. It’s a highly visible, and highly emotive, legacy to lug around with you every day. Resentment and guilt trips are the result.

Although firmly entrenched in our culture, salary secrecy is a dynamic that may well change over time, as the proportion of our workforces which are made up of oversharing Millennials increases. However, for now most of the nation’s boardroom tables are still occupied by Generation X-ers and older. The secrecy remains.

So where did we net out at IU on the thorny question of divulging our earnings? Afterall, at IU we all sit at the (metaphorical) boardroom table. Although going public with our pay feels true to the agency’s principles of honesty and transparency, there’s a belief that it could also create challenges for a company that prides itself on its non-hierarchical structure. Variances in pay introduce hierarchy, whether we like it or not; The number of zeros on your pay slip are empirical evidence of being valued less, or more, than your colleagues — and that can create resentment and cliques.

In a traditional hierarchical company there’s an acceptance that seniority and earnings are linked; by contrast, in a company like IU, where roles are more fluid and responsibility is shared, one could argue that staff pay should be an absolute reflection of each person’s contribution. But life isn’t like that and IU exists within the wider context of other potential places of work. We have to accept that people and their experience come with a price tag attached. So for now, our salaries remain the personal property of the individuals who earn them, although I suspect that it’s a debate that will rumble on.

And in the meantime, like everyone else, we’re always welcome to share the deepest, darkest workings of our innermost desires with whomever we choose.

Written by Rachel Emms

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