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How to talk about salary at work

There are plenty of reasons to discuss money with your colleagues. Here’s how to do it right.

Many people earn vastly different wages or salaries for working similar — or, in some cases, identical — jobs. In some situations, earnings differ because two people have different skill sets, credentials or experience; in other situations, earnings disparities are based on unconscious or systemic biases surrounding gender or race. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white women earn 79.7% as much as white men — and Black and Hispanic women only earn 85% and 77.7% of what white women earn, respectively.

One way to close these earnings gaps is to start talking about salary at work. If you want to advocate for yourself and your coworkers, one of the best tools at your disposal is to share honest and transparent information about your compensation. However, you shouldn’t just go around asking your coworkers what they make or sharing your salary at the next happy hour. Instead, you should approach salary conversations like any other difficult workplace conversation: diplomatically, thoughtfully and appropriately.

We reached out to Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, CEO of financial education company The Money Coach, New York Times bestselling author and former Wall Street Journal reporter for CNBC, to learn more about how to broach the sensitive subject of salary with your coworkers — whether you’re applying for a new job, hoping to negotiate a raise or simply want to know whether you’re being paid fairly.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, white women earn 79.7% as much as white men — and Black and Hispanic women only earn 85% and 77.7% of what white women earn, respectively.

In this article:

Why you should talk about salary at work

A lot of people feel very uncomfortable talking about money, much less talking to coworkers about how much everyone is earning. However, talking about salary at work is a skill that can be learned — just like every other workplace skill you’ve learned so far.

“One of the benefits [of talking about money] is that you get practice, and you get more comfortable talking about pay, about salary in the workplace, and about the issues that often remain kind of shrouded in secrecy,” Khalfani-Cox told us. These shrouded issues include the gender wage gap and the racial wealth gap, both of which might affect what you earn at a specific job.

However, there might be other issues on the table as well. “It may be the case that you find out that your peers are getting more than you, and it may not have to do with blatant inequity or discrimination,” Khalfani-Cox explains. Someone else might have credentials that you do not, for example, or an advanced degree that correlates with a higher pay range.

Your coworkers may also simply be better at advocating for themselves and their value. If someone on your team is earning more money than you, Khalfani-Cox offers one reason why: “Every single year, that other person has gone in and asked for a merit-based increase, as opposed to just a cost-of-living adjustment.” This is why talking about salary at work is only the first step in ensuring you’re being compensated appropriately. The second — and more important — step involves becoming skilled in the art of negotiation.

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Do your homework first

Before you have a salary conversation with a coworker or industry peer, take the time to learn what typical salary ranges might be for people in your position. “I don’t think that you should start the conversation with another person without first doing your own homework and research,” Khalfani-Cox advises. “The information is very much at our fingertips.”

Sites like Glassdoor, Payscale and Salary.com can all help you determine the salary range for people in your industry, role and region. If possible, try to learn what salary ranges are offered by your company (or, if you’re on the job market, your prospective company) as well — if one employer pays significantly above or below the typical salary range, that’s useful information.

You can also use the resources provided by various industry groups and organizations. “If you are a Black engineer, go look up NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers,” Khalfani-Cox says. “These organizations often keep salary data and information. They have job postings, and you can see salary ranges.”

Once you start researching a specific company or employer, see if people within that company are reporting different salaries for similar jobs. That might mean that the company is willing to pay more for people with certain credentials or skills, including negotiation skills. It might also mean that the company routinely offers less compensation to certain types of employees, such as women or minorities.

In short, do as much homework as possible before beginning an in-person salary conversation. “You shouldn’t just walk up to a coworker and say ‘How much do you make?’,” Khalfani-Cox explains. “You should have a rough idea.”

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How to start the salary conversation

There are a couple of different ways to approach a salary conversation with a coworker. If you are currently applying for jobs, ask the hiring manager if they can connect you with someone in the same team or department. There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to talk to a potential coworker before taking a job — it’s a great way to learn about workplace culture, work-life balance and other aspects of the job that might not come out during the standard interview process. It’s also a good opportunity for you to ask about compensation.

“When you talk with other people who are going to be doing the same work that you’re doing, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask them ‘Can you tell me what the range is for a position like this?’” Khalfani-Cox advises. “You’re not asking them for their salary. This is the more tactful way to put it.”

You might learn, for example, that the company offers a wide salary range — and you might learn why some employees earn more than others. You might also learn that this potential employer offers the same pay rate to every new hire at a certain level. Either way, you’ll have more information than when you started the conversation.

If you are currently employed and want to know whether you are being compensated fairly compared to your peers, Khalfani-Cox suggests broaching the question this way: “Here’s where I am right now [in terms of salary]. I’m going to be asking for a raise; do you have a sense of what I should be asking for?”

You may find out that you are making much less than the other people in your department; conversely, you may discover that you’re earning more than the coworker you just asked for advice. “In that case,” Khalfani-Cox says, “you’ve helped that person.”

You may discover that you’re earning more than the coworker you just asked for advice. “In that case,” Khalfani-Cox says, “you’ve helped that person.”

When you negotiate, focus on your value

Once you’ve gotten a good idea of what your salary should be, it’s time to start negotiating — but don’t make the mistake of saying that you deserve a certain level of compensation because someone else in your company or industry is making that much. Instead, focus on the value that you bring to the position and the organization, whether you’re negotiating as part of the hiring process or whether you’re meeting with your supervisor to discuss an annual raise.

“I 100% believe that you should only focus on the value you’re bringing,” Khalfani-Cox says. Be prepared to talk about the projects you’ve completed, the sales you’ve closed, the clients you’ve brought in and any other tangible, documentable results that prove you’re adding value to the company.

If you’re applying for a new job, try to avoid having the salary conversation until after the employer has already given you a verbal or a written offer. “When an employer is more invested in you, you have more leverage to actually negotiate,” Khalfani-Cox explains. “Don’t throw out a number before you have a chance to explain who you are and the value you could bring to the organization.”

If you are negotiating a pay raise, be prepared to advocate for yourself — and be confident. Khalfani-Cox used to manage a team of 22 writers and editors, many of whom attempted to negotiate pay increases during their tenure with the company. “I can tell you unequivocally: The people who were confident in their work, who knew their value to the organization, who demanded higher pay, they got it.”

If you’d like to learn more about the negotiating process, Khalfani-Cox offers a course in The Art of Negotiating for Women. You might also want to consider the resources at Ask a Manager, in which former nonprofit manager Alison Green shares her advice on everything from negotiating a compensation package to asking for a raise to talking about salary with your co-workers.

Here’s one more piece of advice from Lynnette Khalfani-Cox: “At the end of the day, there’s far more upside and value in talking about salary matters than there is the potential for risk or downside.” If you’re anxious about discussing salary at work, use these tips to help you prepare for the conversation. Remember that you don’t always have to discuss salary with people at your workplace; if you’d rather not bring up the subject with your coworkers, you can talk to someone who works a similar job at a different company or share your thoughts in an online group for people in your industry. No matter what path you choose, don’t let your fear of discussing money prevent you from earning what you’re worth.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

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Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

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