Many companies actively discourage staff from talking to each other about their salaries. I know some companies that require employees to sign agreements stipulating they won't disclose pay, benefits, etc. to other employees.

But it doesn't matter. Employees talk.

I did, both when I was "labor" and when I was "management." Generally speaking, the only employees who didn't share details about their pay were the ones who didn't want others to know how much they made because they knew we would immediately think, "Wait -- you make that much?"

I know, because it happened to me.

Years ago I worked for a big company. I started at the bottom, climbed the ladder, and after a series of promotions earned a supervisory position. I loved the job and was really happy with my salary increase. I came in early, stayed late, started projects, volunteered for cross-departmental teams, took on additional responsibilities... I worked hard and was happy to work hard.

Life was good.

Then I found out another supervisor -- a lazy, difficult, uncooperative supervisor -- made about 50% more than I did.

I tried to put it aside. I kept telling myself all that mattered was that I was happy with what I made. I kept telling myself what others earned was irrelevant. I kept telling myself nothing had really changed. But of course everything had changed... because now I knew.

And to my discredit, I never got over it. I couldn't change how much he earned but I could change how hard I worked. I still worked hard... but I no longer worked that hard.

Sum it up, and this was me:

Of course I'm not the only one who lets the knowledge of what others make affect their performance or attitude.

There's a scene in Alison Elwood's fantastic History of the Eagles documentary about the band's 1994 reunion.

In its first incarnation the band members had formed a corporation called Eagles Limited, which, as Don Felder put it, "... was all for one and one for all." When they reunited, the late Glenn Frey decided on a different approach.

"I'm not going to do it unless Don (Henley) and I make more money than the other (three) guys," he said. "We're the only guys who have done anything career-wise in the last 14 years. We're the guys that have kept the Eagles name alive on radio, television, and in concert halls."

(He had a point. Frey and Henley had both scored a number of top ten hits while the other erstwhile Eagles enjoyed comparatively less success.)

"So," Frey said, "we came up with a deal I was happy with, Don was happy with, Timothy (B. Schmitt) was happy with, Joe (Walsh) was happy with... and Don Felder was not happy with."

Still, Felder eventually decided to sign on and the Eagles reunited, cut a new album, and performed sold-out shows around the world.

Yet according to Frey, "Don Felder was never ever satisfied... never ever happy. A rock band is not a perfect democracy; it's more like a sports team. No one can do anything without the other guys... but everybody doesn't get to touch the ball all the time. Time went on and Felder became more and more unhappy. He couldn't appreciate the amount of money he was making, (he was) more concerned about how much money I was making."

Which, of course, is exactly what happened to me -- or what I let happen to me.

Odd things happen when we start to compare. I was happy with what I earned as a supervisor until I learned what another supervisor made.

Then I was unhappy.

Yet all that really had changed was the addition of one small piece of knowledge. My pay hadn't changed, my duties hadn't changed, my opportunities hadn't changed - I was the only thing that changed.

According to Frey, the same happened with Felder. If he had been offered the same money as a solo artist he might have been thrilled; my guess is the amount he made reuniting with the Eagles far exceeded what he had earned in the intervening years.

Yet comparisons and emotions apparently colored his perception. "Great" money no longer seemed so great because it wasn't as great as what a few other people made.

Is comparing salaries a real problem for some people? Absolutely -- especially when we compare our relative compensation to the relative output of others.

And that's why it's often better not to know. If you're happy with your role and your level of pay, knowing what other people make could be irrelevant. Ignorance, in that case, truly may be bliss.

Yet in some cases a little knowledge does a lot more harm than good. At least it did in my case. I wish, instead of finding out -- and learning something I could do nothing about -- I had just walked away when the conversation came up. I wish I had never found out what he made.

I would have been happier.

But maybe that's just me.

What about you? Do you think it's good or bad to know what your peers people make? Do you think it's helpful or harmful to know what your boss makes?

Published on: Dec 29, 2016
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