Could Millennials End Salary Secrecy?

One long-held taboo of office life is that you're not supposed to talk about what you make. It appears that may be changing.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

One long-held taboo of office life is that you're not supposed to talk about what you make. And if you do, oh, you better make sure that whomever you share those private $$-details with can keep his or her mouth shut, lest it get back to someone in, say, human resources, who will not approve at all of your mouthing off on the issue everyone's supposed to keep mum about. Of course, this is a bit strange, because if we all knew each other's salaries, we would be in better, more informed bargaining positions. If there was wage discrimination of any sort, it would be revealed. And more basically, knowledge is power, right? And so are salaries. Getting paid is a key part of work (this is not just for pleasure, friends). So why are we so afraid to go there in our conversations about working?

Well, maybe we're not. Who can we thank for this? Millennials and their wild and crazy social media tendencies, of course.

Lauren Weber and Rachel Emma Silverman write in the Wall Street Journal that "comparing salaries among colleagues has long been a taboo of workplace chatter, but that is changing as Millennials—individuals born in the 1980s and 1990s—join the labor force. Accustomed to documenting their lives in real time on social-media forums like Facebook and Twitter, they are bringing their embrace of self-disclosure into the office with them." Not only do they share information, and share alike, they also use the information to get raises. Oversharing translates to salary talk, and salary talk translates to salary change.

That doesn't mean it's all blissful, though. Weber and Silverman explain that a lot of issues can come up when people stop being "polite" and start real-talking about pay. "Pay differentials, when they become public, can engender resentment, envy and dissatisfaction among workers, especially those who find themselves on the low end of the scale." Happy workers become unhappy. The boss is deluged with raise-seekers. Everything is haywire (or at least, not what it's long been expected to be). Suddenly there's a whole lot of conversation necessary around information that was once kept private. But sooner rather than later, employers and employees alike will have to adapt, because once the cat's out of the bag, rebagging said cat becomes an exercise in futility, like scheduling too many meetings.

Note however that the best efforts at salary conferencing with one's colleagues do not appear to be social media based. You can take your cue from what you do on Facebook (i.e., sharing) but draw the line at actually putting your salary on Facebook, or tweeting about your new raise. Millennials are instead turning to a few trusted co-workers IRL to talk pay (I recommend doing this at a bar, a few drinks in, and not in the office itself), and then strategizing "together about what salaries they were aiming for and how to negotiate to get there." It's a bit like crowd-sourcing, you know, so natural to those of a certain age. There's also self-defense to it. Dustin Zick, 25, told the Journal, "There's a culture of transparency in my generation ... the younger you are, the more likely an employer will try to get you for cheap. So to know what your peers are making benefits all parties involved, except maybe the employer."

The one person who does seem to lose if salary information becomes public, of course, is your employer, which is a big part of why salary talk remains so "discreet." It is oft in the interest of the body that has hired you to keep this information under wraps, so that things don't get "awkward," so that people don't all demand higher salaries, so that widespread employee infighting doesn't break out, distracting all, and because the company would likely have to deal with those and other repercussions—especially if there is a revelation of wrongdoing or discrimination. The story has long been that your salary is between you and the company employing you; it's no one else's business. But getting paid is everyone's business, it could be argued. Quite literally.

To a lesser degree there's also a question of etiquette in salary talk, of how people don't want to be too upfront about money, especially not money that symbolizes "what they're worth," lest they be judged as uncouth, or a braggart. Or possibly worse, lest they be judged as poorly paid and therefore bad at their jobs, or shamefully naive. Still, while employers may continue to hope that salaries remain cloaked, employees' fear of telling all seems to be dissipating. With a culture of information sharing comes a distrust of that kept secret (why? for what?), and the more a company tries to keep something hush-hush, the more people want to know! Some companies, then, are employing their own moves to greater salary transparency, which seems wise.

As for the rules that HR may or may not have told you, "rank-and-file employees" (not managers or supervisors, generally) cannot be barred from disclosing pay under the National Labor Relations Act. So, don't be afraid to talk. Just do it with care and, maybe, don't tweet about it, too.

Image via Shutterstock by Blaj Gabriel.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.