If you’re nervous about asking for a raise, or if you’re afraid you’re making less than someone who does the same job as you, stumbling clumsily into a conversation about the sensitive subject of salary won’t win you any popularity contests in the office. 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.
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There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Rule
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, vice president of marketing for InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) and 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.”
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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.”
A lot of it is in the delivery.
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“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.”
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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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Last updated: March 25, 2021