“We all got raises,” a former colleague recently told a reader we’re calling Maddie. The two of them had worked together at a business that had frozen salaries for many years. My reader had left the company but stayed in touch with many of her former colleagues.
“We all got raises, but they told us not to discuss how much the raises were with one another,” the former colleague told Maddie. Maddie told her former colleague that she thought this directive was inappropriate.
None of the salaries at her former place of employment were ever public, Maddie writes. As a result, employees never knew if what they made was comparable to what others made for similar work completed. They all did know, however, that salaries had been frozen and no raises were forthcoming for several years. That announcement was made to all employees at the company.
Maddie congratulated her former colleague on the long overdue salary raise, but told her that by not knowing what one another makes, none of them have any idea whether they are being compensated fairly in comparison to one another. That lack of transparency about salaries, Maddie argued, leaves everyone with a tinge of doubt that they are being paid less than the colleague in the cubicle next to them. “It hardly breeds goodwill,” Maddie wrote.
Maddie asked whether she was wrong to advise her former colleague that she and others would be wise to share their salary information. She also asked whether I believe her belief that sharing financial information crosses any ethical lines.
Maddie has every right to offer whatever opinion she wants to offer to former colleagues when it comes to how they share salary information. Her colleague has every right to embrace Maddie’s view or to disagree with her. Does sharing financial information cross ethical lines? As long as no one illegally snoops into someone else’s finances, if they want to share how much they earn, that should be up to them.
The challenge with the sharing being voluntary is that it is random. If only a handful of employees share information, Maddie’s former colleagues won’t likely end up with a complete picture of how salaries compare throughout the organization. She also will be relying on colleagues to be honest about how much they make rather than having an accurate source of such information.
If Maddie’s belief is that salaries at her former employer will only be fair if everyone knows how they stack up against one another, the right thing would be for Maddie to encourage her former colleagues to push back on their employer and ask for a full disclosure of salaries. That would be the only way for employees to gain a complete picture. While many government salaries are already made public and available to search on public databases, private and non-government operations don’t face the same obligation for full disclosure.
If Maddie’s former colleagues decide to go this route and their company complies with the request, they should be prepared to discover that they might actually make more than someone who does the same job as they do with the same level of experience. If that’s the case and their goal is for salaries to be equitable, the right thing would be to be as outraged as if they had discovered they made far less that the other person.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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