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Talk About Your Salary
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July 2008


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Back when I had a job, I thought it was odd that people working in American businesses were afraid to compare and discuss each other's salaries. Salaries are taboo were more off-limits and taboo than any other topic. Americans were just too scared and embarrassed to talk about their most important concern and the only reason they were there in the first place.

Now that I've been out of a job for over four years and can reflect on this clearly, it became obvious that the only reason for the taboo is because our bosses don't want us to know what the other guys make.

If everyone talked about the most important thing on their mind while at work, people would discover that they usually were paid too little!

If we all knew what our friends made, we'd have solid facts with which to petition the boss to get paid more.

The Watson Files

I used to work for a great guy who loaded with great stories. One of his stories was how he and another guy at a previous job had the hobby of researching and maintaining a spreadsheet with the salaries of all of their coworkers. The only rule was that they kept their salaries secret from each other as part of the joke, although they would often kid each other by doing things like saying that their FICA was already paid for the year — in February.

They collected this data mostly through rifling through the trash after payday, where they could find discarded pay stubs. As engineers, it was trivial to use what they could find to piece together everyone's pay history.

As they gathered this data, they discovered what the bosses don't want you to know: that some of the very best and brightest people got paid the least, and that some of the very stupidest people got paid the most. They, and I, found this hilarious. How can this be?

Simple: Bosses have played this taboo game ever since the middle class was invented in the 1800s. By getting employees to think that their salaries are "private" information, the bosses can pay you as little as you'll accept without you realizing you're getting ripped off.

What you get paid is only about your self-promotion and negotiating skills, not your work skills. It's exactly like photography.

By keeping everyone from comparing salaries, it's easy to pay people as little as they'll accept, not what they deserve. America is kept strong by having a competitive economy, but that means you always have to work on winning, or you lose.

It's Not Private

Sure, salary information is something your employer keeps private from the other employees, but your own salary information is yours to do with as you please. If you want to shout it from the rooftops and post it online, go for it.

At my last job, I started in 1995 at Tektronix at $76,000 a year, and was pulling in $140,000 a year when I bailed out in 2004 to do this website. I also always had a free all-expenses-paid new car, and paid taxes on it for all personal use. What's to lose by sharing the information? I've already paid my taxes and spent the rest.

I don't care what you make, but you need to care what your colleagues make.

Why? Because invariably you will discover that someone stupider, less experienced or subordinate to you makes more. When you find this out, these facts used properly will get you the raise you deserve.

Its sad how office workers freely compare the piddling percentages they might get as raises each year, which barely compensate for inflation, but are afraid to share their far more important total salaries.

Salary surveys mean nothing. That information isn't a compelling argument to get you the raise you deserve. Knowing which far less productive co-worker earns more than you do is solid information that can get you that raise, played properly. If everyone shares, no one loses. Sure, the boss might give the stupid, but well-paid, guy a dirty look if he went blabbing it all over, but when everyone shares, it's now the boss who looks stupid.

You're Probably Not the Highest Paid

The worst thing that could happen is that you'll discover you are the most highly paid person. What's so bad about that?

A trick used by bosses is to tell each employee that they are the most highly paid, and to keep it quiet in return for that honor. One of my bosses, Howard, at Tek (2000-2002) told me that, and when I laughed and said "you tell that to everyone!," he claimed it was for real.

Of course your employer tries to trick you into thinking your salary is private information. That's how they keep you from figuring out that your stupider co-worker makes more than you do. This information might be private from the employer's point of view, but from your point of view, it's your own information to share and compare with everyone. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.



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