Has this happened to you?
You’re at work and bored out of your gourd. What you need to survive is a friendly chinwag with your co-workers. You can’t bring up politics. The last time you broached that subject you spent the next week hiding under your desk. And you certainly don’t want to open up a discussion about sex — not if you expect to get home before midnight.
Which leaves the subject universally considered the third rail of workplace conversation — compensation.
“How much do you make?”
It’s a simple question, but ask it and you’ll quickly find that your closest teammates would rather tell you about how they are bamboozling the IRS, canoodling with that hottie in IT and embezzling their children’s college funds.
Whatever is in their paycheck is top secret. They’ll take it to the bank when they’re alive, and, when they’re dead, they’ll take it to the grave.
Which is a problem. You suspect that you’re underpaid and you’re really unhappy about it, but without knowing how much others in the company are making, you’ll never know just how really unhappy you should be.
It is also a problem for a writer and editor at The Washington Post, Janay Kingsberry, who recently published ” ‘How Much Do You Make?’: Here’s How To Start Conversations About Pay With Friends, Co-workers and Your Manager.”
One strategy for learning the truth about the size of your co-worker’s paychecks is to request a departmental meeting on the subject of money, inviting both colleagues and managers. You frame the conversation “as a win-win where everyone learns together.”
In creating an open, safe environment, Kingsberry suggests, you can ask softball questions, like “how has covid affected the company’s finances?” or “how does the company go about setting pay for different jobs?” This strategy is fine, but it doesn’t go far enough. My suggestion is to wait until everyone is numb and then go totally Judge Judy, going around the room, pointing to specific co-workers and demanding to know now much they’re paid and why.
You probably won’t get answers, but you will make some powerful new enemies. In fact, you could become so disliked, you’ll be promoted to manager.
A somewhat less confrontational way to get a view of the compensation landscape is to use lunch with a co-worker as an occasion to lobby for paycheck transparency. You will want to choose your moment — between the appetizer and the main course may be too early. Between the third Corpse Reviver and the fourth may be too late.
Alternately, you can go to dinner with your manager. Once the boss has wiped the beluga from their chin and finished the dregs of their Lafite Rothschild, it’s the perfect time to lobby for inside info on the state of your next raise. If you find it’s difficult to bring up the subject of money, simply grab the check when it arrives. Take one look and start weeping.
“It’s Feathers J. Pepperpot,” you gasp, “my pet parakeet. Feathers needs a beak transplant and I don’t know how I’ll be able to afford the veterinarian bills on my salary.”
Not even the hardest-hearted manager can resist a hard-luck story like this, and the door to the company vault will soon be opening wide.
Of course, the most troubling outcome of talking salary with your co-workers is not the risk that they are getting paid more than you; it’s the possibility that you are getting paid more than them. At worst, this could open you up to a flurry of requests to lend them money for meaningless frivolities like rent and food. At best, you could get served up a major portion of resentment.
Comments in meetings like, “let’s hear what Megabucks has to say,” or “I suppose that’s how things look in the higher tax brackets” can be annoying. What is truly scary is the knowledge that everyone in your department will be trying to leverage their own salary increases by making detailed analyses about how much you make and how little you do.
And now you see why talking about your salary is a really bad idea. If you find out you’re being underpaid, you’ll feel miserable. Learn you’re overpaid and you’ll feel like you have to justify your salary by actually doing more work. That’s an outcome nobody wants.
In the end, you may just have to show your co-workers that you really do need the money.
That’s right! You have to go out and buy a parakeet.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at [email protected] To find out more about Bob Goldman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.