Unlocking the Salary Taboo

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“How much money do you make?”

It’s one of the longest-lasting taboos in society today. From the cubicle to the dinner table, mentioning one’s salary, or even bringing up the subject, makes for awkward silences and a general sense that the speaker has never been taught manners.

For Generation Y, however, the lines have become blurred. The New York Times posted an article yesterday related to this precise issue. To our generation,

“salary information is now fair game, at least among friends. Many consider it crucial to prosper in an increasingly transient, winner-take-all workplace — regardless of the envy that full disclosure can raise. Besides, when the Internet already offers a cornucopia of personal information, it almost seems coy to keep personal income private.”

My parents raised me with the belief that one’s salary is an extremely private matter. To this day, I cannot tell you how much my parents make, though this would be a juicy bit of information to have. But I can tell you how much my sister and a number of close friends make, simply because, it seems, the closer one is to having graduated from college, the less closed-lipped one becomes about salary … at least with friends. Bill Coleman, chief compensation officer of Salary.com, is quoted in the Times article as saying, “This is a generation that is much more attuned to teamwork, collaboration and sharing information. Everything they do is a kind of group event. How do you know, when you get your first job offer, if $45,000 is a good offer, a bad offer or an O.K. offer? You go to your friends.”

The exception does still exist with regard to divulging such information to co-workers. A Money Magazine study found that 84 percent of people under the age of 35 believe that one should never reveal to work colleagues how much money he or she makes. Divulging one’s salary to co-workers at jobs I’ve had in the past could result in immediate termination; it ranked as a very serious offense.

Thankfully, for those who are curious, the Internet makes it very easy to figure out the salaries of other professionals at your level. Salary.com offers a one-click summary of the going rates for your job title in any specific zip code, and from what I’ve tested, this seems to be a fairly accurate record. Also, PayScale.com provides users with a full, in-depth, and totally free salary report that compares your total salary, benefits, and further compensation (bonuses, stock options, vacation time, etc.) within categories such as gender, experience, skill, age, location, and degree of study. In addition, you can view anonymous profiles of professionals in your area detailing all of the categories (see screenshot below). This is highly beneficial, some say, with regard to annual or semi-annual reviews, in which one can present the median or even a range of salaries to one’s manager in an effort to receive proper, or standard, compensation for one’s job responsibilities and experience.

PayScale.com Anonymous Profile

However, as I get older and tack on more years under my employment belt, I’m finding myself less and less inclined to discuss salary with anyone but those with whom I have the most intimate relationships. I felt extremely awkward at one point a few months ago, when my significant other made a slight reference to my salary in front of some of my college friends, people with whom I would not have hesitated to discuss it just two years ago. My general response to something like that is, “Oh, I’m managing,” and a quick change of subject. But in review-like situations at work, salary discussion is fair play, and will continue to be a strong negotiation tool.

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Ingrid is a B2B marketing professional with a decade of experience in online marketing, marketing automation, demand generation and marketing strategy for both start-ups and large corporations. She specializes in developing strategic and integrated marketing campaigns, optimizing marketing automation and CRM systems and developing content for sales/marketing utilization. On the side, Ingrid enjoys antiquing, playing guitar (not well), and traveling both within the US and throughout Europe.

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