“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how much do you earn?”

It’s not a question you hear often – and rarely at all without an apology preceding it.

For many, a salary level in some way defines you, measuring your worth and reflecting how successful you’ve been in life. For others, it’s just an awkward subject best avoided.

We tend to take salaries incredibly seriously, but this needn’t require us to keep them secret.

Salary secrecy chiefly benefits employers over employees and is all too easily perpetuated by the desire to be polite and the fear of being intrusive.

As it looks like salary discussions are starting to become less of a taboo, we’re waking up to some of the major benefits of increased transparency around what we earn.

Let’s open up a little more about the benefits of discussing your salary more freely.

Millennials are more open about what they earn

Mum’s the word for Baby Boomers

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests ‘millennials’ and ‘baby boomers’ view many aspects of life and work quite differently – and salary secrecy is one.

A 2017 survey of workers in the US found that millennials are four times more likely than their parents’ generation to discuss their salary openly with colleagues.

As more of the millennial generation join the workforce and start rising in the ranks this trend should begin to have a major impact on the culture around discussing salaries.

While it is illegal for employers in many countries to prohibit such dialogue, there is still a lingering perception that workers are obliged to keep quiet.

That view may soon be a thing of the past.

Employers are having to adapt to changes in work culture

Millennials are the social media generation, digital natives whose lives have been played out on Facebook and Instagram.

For millennials, sharing personal information is not considered as risky as it is by baby boomers.

Many aspects of work culture are changing as technology advances and habits shift, which has already seen the growth of informal, flexible, and part-time working, as well as increased mobility within the labour market.

As work schedules and career trajectories become less regular, it will become less revealing (and therefore awkward) to compare paycheques with a colleague.

Transparency shines a light on the pay gap

It’s hard to mind the gap when you can’t see it

Not everyone gets paid fairly.

The ‘pay gap’, whether it be between men and women, majority and minority ethnic groups, or based on any other discriminatory factor, is a persistent problem. Salary secrecy only obscures the causes (and remedies) from view.

Some measure of transparency around salaries is the first step to be taken in challenging pay discrimination. If the pay gap itself is a secret, how can we hope to make progress toward fairer wage structures?

Some high profile cases have revealed the potential for injustice within a culture of silence around pay.

Salary secrecy keeps everyone in the dark about pay policy, which can be an underlying motivation for those companies who prefer their employees to keep shtum.

Honesty can be the best policy

Openness toward salary discussions can in itself help fix the problem of unfair pay.

If employers know that colleagues doing the same job while at different pay grades might be more likely to have a conversation about how much they earn, companies will be reluctant to pay them differently in the first place.

And if it’s easier to find out how much someone in an equivalent position at another company or in another industry takes home each month, competition in the labour market should be enhanced all round.

In Norway, Sweden and Finland everyone has the right to check each other’s salary through a request to the tax authority. Regardless of whether this is a symptom or a cause of income equality, it is a level of openness we should probably all aspire to.  

Your value shouldn’t be defined by the money you make

You’re worth more than what your salary suggests

One of the strongest underlying causes of salary secrecy is how much we let our salary level speak for us.

While salaries are extremely important, and should always be a fair reflection of our contribution, they do not define the ultimate value of our work.

At the end of the day, wages are shaped more than anything by the market. What we achieve at work, and the sense of satisfaction and pride that comes with that, is something else.

Certain industries and sectors will always pay more than others, but many people choose their career with more consideration for their what interests them and what they enjoy doing rather than a given profession’s future earning potential.

Greater honesty around salary discussions might just help us to realize that our true value should not be measured in money.

Focus instead on what really matters

With better knowledge of how salaries differ and vary across industries, professions, and even departments, it will become more apparent how a wage level will not always match our opinion of someone’s overall abilities, qualities, or value within a workplace.

As long as we still feel that the salary is fair, this should encourage us to measure ourselves by more than simply our pay packet.

The upside here is that we can put less stock in hierarchy and seniority, and more on what each individual contributes to the collective.

It will also free us to worry less about how much we earn and more about why we earn in the first place. If we are getting paid a fair wage that allows us to live the life we want, we should feel less pressure on getting that pay rise.

Salary levels are too important to be ignored

Discussions should still be treated with care

Despite the potential rewards of opening up about how much we earn, there are very real dangers too.

Though salary secrecy has most obviously benefited employers, there are also legitimate arguments in favour of it from an employee’s perspective.

While transparency over pay can appear to increase motivation, this effect is reversed if a colleague on a similar level in the hierarchy is found to have a higher salary, proving demotivating – thus ultimately having a negative effect on both productivity and job satisfaction.

Arguments against pay transparency all warn of the potential for tension, conflict, and an unhealthy increase in competitiveness within a workplace.

Discretion is important. For the benefits of openness around salary discussions to flow conversations regarding pay scales still need to be treated caution, and care taken to divulge information in a responsible manner.

And anyone who doesn’t wish to discuss their salary should never be pressured into being more open.

Not talking about your salary may be holding you back

Effort should be taken to ensure salary discussions, when they do happen, are handled responsibly and professionally – precisely because they are so important.

With no hope of finding out what your colleagues earn without risking an awkward conversation or accusations of insensitivity, it becomes harder to know if you’re being paid fairly yourself.

Publicly-accessible information about salaries may be inaccurate or misleading, which could end up costing you in salary negotiations.

While this taboo is still with us, you might want to consider raising the issue of salary discussions without necessarily asking your colleagues straight out.

Once aware of the potential benefits, they might think again about opening up.