Discussing salaries with your colleagues can be a tricky and sensitive subject.
Maybe you’re preparing to negotiate a raise, or maybe you suspect that you’re being paid less than someone with the same job title. These are both good reasons to ask a coworker how much they’re making, but it’s important to approach the conversation with a well-thought-out plan. Simply stumbling into the topic haphazardly could lead to awkwardness or even resentment in the workplace.
Few topics are touchier, trickier or more delicate, and if you’re going to bring it up to a colleague, you’d better have a plan. Here are some tips to help you navigate this delicate conversation with tact.
Ask the Right Person
As with so many things involving money etiquette, the right move varies by friendship.
“Asking a coworker about salary depends on your relationship with that specific person,” said Elizabeth Keatinge, certified personal finance counselor and founder of women’s financial empowerment site FundsSavvy.com. “If you are close to your coworker and have a friendship outside of work or even a good rapport at the office, it is appropriate to ask about information respectfully.”
Maggie Tucker, former vice president of marketing for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and current co-host of the financial podcast Friends on Fire, expanded even further.
“If it’s your best friend and you tell each other everything and you have a solid reason for wanting to know, then go for it,” she said. “But if it’s someone you don’t know or trust that well, we would suggest that’s not a topic you should bring up to a coworker.”
Have a Good Reason for Asking
What you’re asking is personal and private — you do owe your colleague a reason for the inquiry.
“Know why you’re asking and what you plan to do with this information,” Tucker said.
Jennifer Porter, etiquette and customer care coach from Satsuma Designs in Seattle, concurs.
“Never ask about salary figures for the sake of knowing,” she said. “Approach the conversation through courteous information gathering. You may begin by sharing your concern and personal situation and ask for guidance. Open the discussion by giving the coworker a clear indication that if she isn’t comfortable with the topic, it’s absolutely no problem. If authentic, your query will be seen as that and hopefully, the trust that you have built with your coworker will result in an open and confidential conversation.”
Choose Your Words Carefully
The language you use when asking about your co-workers’ salaries can greatly impact how they receive your question. Avoid being confrontational or accusatory in your approach.
“Say something like, ‘I want to negotiate my salary. If you feel comfortable, would you mind telling me what your salary is? If you don’t want to share, I totally understand and respect that,'” Keatinge said.
Sometimes, it’s best to keep things vague.
“Do not ask coworkers about specific salary figures,” Porter said. “Instead, with close colleagues, you can comfortably ask about salary range if there is some concern about your own compensation package.”
Find the Right Time and Place
Timing and context matter when it comes to sensitive conversations like salary discussions. Look for a private and quiet location where you can speak candidly without fear of being overheard by your other co-workers. It’s also important to choose a time when your co-worker is not busy or stressed, so they can give their full attention to the conversation.
Respect their Privacy
Remember that discussing salaries can be a sensitive topic for many people. Many still consider it taboo to talk openly about money. Some may not feel comfortable sharing their financial information with you, and that’s okay. If someone declines to share their salary, respect their decision and don’t push the issue.
When asking about someone’s salary, it’s important to approach the conversation with sensitivity and respect. Avoid making assumptions or judgments about their pay. Instead, try to frame the conversation as an open dialogue about how your company compensates employees.
Keep the Conversation Professional
While it’s natural to be curious about your colleagues’ salaries, it’s important to keep the conversation professional and focused on the facts.
Your goal should be to gather information about industry standards and average salaries for your position. This can help you better understand where you stand in terms of compensation and negotiate more effectively with your employer. Avoid getting emotional, and instead, ask open-ended questions to understand their experience and perspective. Remember, your goal should be to gain insight, not to judge or criticize either your co-workers, or yourself.
Make Sure You Can Handle the Answer — and the Potential Drama
In a lot of cases, the problem isn’t how to pose the question. It’s what you learn from the response.
“You may not like what you find out, and it might create an immediate sense of unhappiness and resentment,” Tucker said. “There are so many factors that go into someone’s salary, from years of experience to performance to the role itself. It’s hard for an employee to unbiasedly consider all of these factors when they hear that their coworker is making more than they are.”
It could also create friction with the brass.
“It’s worth noting that it’s heavily frowned upon by employers and HR to ever discuss your salary with co-workers, as it can often create more harm than good,” Tucker said. “Whoever you tell your salary to may use that information and your name to try and increase their own salary, and then others will know you shared that information. You just need to decide if that’s a risk you’re willing to take.”
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Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.