The Price We Pay For Staying Silent
A few weeks ago, NPR’s Planet Money podcast re-released an amazing episode on our inability to talk about death by highlighting a town that talks about it openly. You can find the entire podcast here.
One of the most interesting arguments they made was that talking about death saves money. If you have a plan in place for when you die, you can budget for that plan, and more importantly save money on potentially unnecessary (or unwanted) end of life care.
But death isn’t the only place we shut the door on conversation only to reap disastrous financial consequences later on. Sex. Mental Health. Money. We live in a world of taboos, and despite evidence that talking openly about uncomfortable topics is much healthier than keeping it all in, the puritan in us says we need to stay hush-hush or else.
I’m here to argue that our unwillingness to talk about topics a lot more broad reaching than death have an equally disastrous effect on our finances, and by proxy, our quality of life. I might not be able to unpack all of our fears of taboo topics in one post, but I can’t stand by and let people shoot themselves over one of the easiest problems to solve. How to talk about money. We are a financial blog after all.
How Much Do You Make?
The fact that this question is reviled by your employer should tell you all you need to know about how important it is to ask it. Unsurprisingly, the more information you have, the better decisions you can make. Yet we shy away from asking our colleagues how much they make, and we guard our own salaries like it’s a state secret. Many companies even have (illegal) policies in place discouraging employees from sharing this information with one another.
Turns out, this outdated practice is bad for you. The more secretive you are, the smaller window you have into your company’s preferences on pay and how hard work pays off (or doesn’t). For instance, my first two jobs out of college paid approximately the same – about $50,000 per year. But in one position my boss was being paid about $100,000, while in the other position my boss only made about $70,000. Similar jobs. Similar management responsibilities. Similar experience.
It became clear that if I had wanted to stay with either company and eventually become the boss, the same amount of work and the same path to promotion would lead to very different outcomes. As an educated adult with a growing wealth of experience, where do you think I’d want to take my talents?
How Do We Fix This?
Ok, so this conversation might be awkward in your office right? You don’t want to be the guy who asks other people about their money. What if it offends them? So how about instead we start from scratch. Next time you’re interviewing for a position (either within your own company or elsewhere), ask your future boss how much they make. Explain that pay transparency is important to you (and it should be), and that an office with open communication is the only environment you feel comfortable working in.
If your potential boss doesn’t want to reveal their salary, or worse, they insist that you aren’t allowed to share your salary with others, they are definitely not someone you want to work for anyway. Bullet dodged. But if you can have a constructive conversation with them about your potential earning capability, why they make what they make, and reasonable expectations for things like bonuses or overtime pay, you’ve found a thoughtful leader.
Don’t get me wrong. The conversation will be awkward. Your potential boss will almost certainly be taken off-guard. That’s to be expected. Most people don’t ask these questions. But someone who is willing to answer your questions as honestly as possible on a subject as sticky as money will be more likely to hear you out when you bring up other concerns – like say sexual harassment, workplace safety, bold new product ideas, new team directions, ethical or legal violations, and more.
The Here and Now
But what if you like your job? You want to know here and now how much your co-workers are making. Well I’d start by getting them all drunk. Just kidding. The path to transparency starts with you. Take a piece of paper and write your annual salary on it. No dollar sign. No context. Tape it up at your desk. Someone will ask you what it means or why you have a random 62,431 (or is it closer to 13,426?) just chilling above your head at all times.
Use this as a jumping off point to start a conversation on salary. If you’re unafraid to show the world how much you make, I can almost guarantee you’ll get at least a few coworkers to follow suit. This way you’re giving up your information. You’re not asking for others’ state secrets.
Money and power are interwoven basically everywhere in the world. But more and more, information is the key to unlocking power too. Being transparent with your salary and encouraging others to do the same might get you a little more of all three.
Nathan is the Chief Financial Advisor at Monte Largo Financial