American culture says that salary information is confidential; 43 percent of married couples couldn’t correctly name their spouse’s salary. Some were off by as much as $25,000. We don’t talk about salaries with our friends and family, and we certainly don’t talk about them with our co-workers. Leaving a list of salaries on the copy machine is certainly a fireable offense in many companies. But, despite all the confidentiality, it’s all self-imposed. Federal law protects your right (and the right of your employees) to discuss their working conditions--including salary.

So, some people at Google did just that. Erica Baker, a former Google employee, created a spreadsheet on which people could report their own salaries. According to Baker, management freaked out. She told the story through a series of tweets. After Baker created the spreadsheet and word of it started spreading, she got called in by her supervisor. Here’s the critical part.

-- EricaJoy (@EricaJoy) July 17, 2015

Baker is absolutely right. Unfortunately, many managers honestly think that it’s bad behavior to share salaries. Frankly, while there are tons of reasons to keep your salary safe from your ne’er-do-well brother-in-law who is constantly coming up with schemes that need funding, there are only two reasons that it’s bad to share salaries with co-workers. Here they are.

1. Everyone is too immature to handle it. If your employees are so dumb that they can’t understand that Bob, who puts in 60 hours ever week, should be paid more than Steve, who is out the door at 4:55 every day, or that Karen, who has 10 years of experience and takes the lead on projects, is paid more than Sheryl, who has the same job title but is brand new to the job and the industry, then by all means, you want to keep salaries quiet.

I don’t say this just to give an utterly ridiculous example. Some people are just that difficult to deal with. Having these people know other people’s salaries will give you a headache. Regardless, it is absolutely illegal to stop them from talking about their salaries.

2. Your salaries are unfair. This is a major reason managers don’t want to share salaries. They know that there are unjustified differences among employees. In some cases, differences are absolutely justified but the explanations would be awkward. It’s easier just to keep quiet about the big raise you gave to John than explain to Jane that her performance stinks.

If neither one of those situations is the case, why do you care if your employees are sharing their salary information? In fact, you should be encouraging it. Think how many problems of discrimination would disappear if there were no secrets about salaries. You couldn’t low-ball a candidate on a job offer, because you would know that as soon as she started, her co-workers would share their salaries. Therefore, you’d have to give a fair offer to begin with.

Yes, it involves an adjustment in our culture, but the reality is, your employees may already be sharing their salaries on secret spreadsheets, which could result in a lot of unpleasantness for you. Clean up your salaries, and then you have nothing to worry about.

Published on: Jul 22, 2015