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The least awkward way to talk about salary with your co-workers
You’ll feel more comfortable when you use these phrases. mentatdgt/Shutterstock

Asking someone how much money they make is like asking to see them naked. It feels like a violation at worst, and deeply inappropriate at best. That conversation can be even more awkward when you ask someone with whom you actually share a manager, a company logo and a smelly office microwave.

Why would you want to ask a colleague? There are reasons beyond morbid curiosity. “Knowledge is power, so I believe that having transparent conversations about salary can be a catalyst for ending wage inequality,” Kelli Dragovich, the senior vice president of people at Hired, a career marketplace that releases regular wage reports, said in an email interview. “In our annual report on the State of Wage Inequality in the Workplace, we asked candidates how they became aware of a pay disparity in their workplace. We found that 66% said salary discussions with a colleague(s) made them aware of the disparity.”

Lauren McGoodwin is the CEO and founder of Career Contessa, through which she offers the Salary Project, a database of thousands of salaries so users can compare their compensation. On a recent phone interview, she expressed the belief that openness around compensation is in a company’s best interest. “Secrecy is not exactly going to create a work culture where people are super motivated and engaged and dedicated to the company,” she said. “I think salary transparency actually does a lot of good things, especially among co-workers. For one, it can help make sure people get equal pay for equal work.”

Still, you don’t want to be rude when inquiring about the number that helps determine a colleague’s lifestyle choices, from their home to their lunch budget to their children’s education. Here’s a script that outlines the setting, the key player and even which words to use.

Figure out how your company feels about these kinds of conversations

Legally speaking, you’re in the clear. The option to discuss your salary with your colleagues is a right protected by federal law. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 states that stifling such conversation “substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates.” In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order strengthening that law, with an eye to the gender pay gap.

Lilly Ledbetter speaks before U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees on Equal Pay Day on April 8, 2014, in Washington, D.C.
Lilly Ledbetter speaks before U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order banning federal contractors from retaliating against employees on Equal Pay Day on April 8, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s rare that your company is thrilled to have employees compare notes, but could you be formally reprimanded? Check your handbook, or simply consider how uptight or sensitive your office culture seems about these sort of internal issues, McGoodwin suggested.

Of course, “that doesn’t mean [employers] won’t put it in their policies, and that managers won’t discourage it and tell you you can’t do it,” McGoodwin said. “It’s more of an intimidation thing.” So yes, if a super secretive employer found out you initiated such a discussion and fired you, you’d have legal grounds to fight back. But in case you’re not up for such a battle, take a look at your company culture before moving forward with this potentially tense conversation.

Find an ally to talk to first

Asking your office nemesis how much they take home is a great way to make an awkward situation worse. “I like to start with people you’re friendly with,” McGoodwin said. “You can always work up to people you don’t know as well, but by then you’ve had some practice.”

Another idea would be to ask an affable colleague on their way out the door. If someone’s already leaving the company, they might not be so worried about managers finding out they’ve had this chat — plus, they just got a new job and likely a new salary, and they might be feeling charitable about career karma.

Determine the right place to discuss

Our experts were split on where the best location is for the salary conversation. While McGoodwin said that heading “off-campus” is a great way to feel safer and open up, Dragovich maintained that compensation chats should happen right there in your office building.

“The act of trying to keep the conversation secret is counter to the openness and transparency that many companies are now trying to promote. So, have the conversation in a one-on-one meeting,” she said. “The other benefit of having this conversation as a course of normal business is that it’s more likely to remain objective and productive. Many times when colleagues have this conversation off-campus and over drinks, it can move away from the bullseye of the topic and turn into a gossip or venting fest.”

Choose your words carefully

It’s tough to dive into this convo, which is why our experts recommended you pin the request on an objective other than nosiness. “I would encourage people to say, ‘I was researching the Salary Project, or another salary tool online, because I want to know the market rate of my skills. I found this range. Would you be willing to tell me your range, or a ballpark of what you make?’” McGoodwin advised. “‘It would really help me with the research I’m already doing, and if I’m not at the market rate, I want to put a plan together to negotiate.’”

Dragovich’s phrasing is loaded with compliments. “‘Hey, I have been thinking about the topic of pay equality and my own pay, and I was wondering if you would be open to a conversation with me about it?’” she suggested as a script. “‘You are someone I trust and respect and I would love your insight and point of view. If not, no worries at all. I realize this can be a sensitive topic not everyone is OK sharing about themselves. Let me know!’”

However you go about it, prepare to cough up your own figure so you two can compare (and so your colleague can learn something, too). “That’s sort of how the world works,” McGoodwin pointed out. “If I show you a little vulnerability, you need to show me some vulnerability.”

What to do after the numbers conversation

Once that tough conversation is over, you’re left with whatever emotion your colleague’s number provoked — and with the question of what to do about it.

“If you discover you are being paid less than a peer at work, you should start off by determining if it is an apples-to-apples comparison,” Dragovich said. “If your colleague has more years of work experience than you or brings a unique skill to the table, it likely makes sense for them to earn a higher salary.”

If you believe the difference is unfair, start preparing for a raise conversation with your boss. The decision to ask for a salary boost comes with its own rules and advice, but when presented through the lens of this compensation comparison, McGoodwin offered another script to follow. “I wouldn’t negotiate based off, ‘Other people are making more than me,’” she said. “First you should be able to show what you contribute to the company, your accomplishments, your plan for the future and your commitment going forward. Then, say ‘I’d like you to consider increasing my salary to XYZ amount, which I’ve found through research is absolutely in line with the market value rate of my skills.’”

Now that you have the where, when and who, get ready to have some illuminating chats with your co-workers. It’s the proactive way to start getting what you deserve.