I remember early in my career, when I made it a point to read all the paperwork and make note of the various things that were in the policy handbook. For some reason, I found it interesting. Maybe because I figured out early on that if there was a sign telling you to do something or not to do something, or a policy written about something, those things were written to avoid some problem. As a case in point, before McDonalds was sued when a coffee spilled in someone’s lap, there were no signs warning you that the coffee was very hot…now those signs are in every drive through window.
As it turns out, employers have policies to discourage you sharing your salary information with co-workers to avoid distractions and negative feelings in the workplace. I can see the point of this, but in my experience, many people violate such policies quite regularly. Personally, I do not talk about my pay with coworkers, but that is probably because I never quite feel like one of the in crowd….more like an alien in the workplace.
There are two tendencies that people have that help to justify the employer’s policy about compensation information. These are self-justification, and fairness. Self-justification means that people will reconcile their own behavior (good and bad), exaggerate their description of those behaviors in others within their social groups, and go full tilt describing those behaviors in people they are not associated with. Consider what happens when describing how a person describes following the speed limit laws: “I keep up with the flow of traffic”, while “you speed all the time”, and “that guy is a maniac!” To tie this back to our topic, consider this: Most people think they do work that is superior to their coworkers.
The other tendency that people have is to instinctively recognize unfairness, and experience very raw emotions when witnessing unfairness. As it turns out, this is not just a tendency of people, but of primates and probably most animals! For a great demonstration of this, check out Frans de Waal’s TED talk about Equal Pay for Monkeys on YouTube.
Based on these two tendencies, its easy to see why an employer would discourage talk about compensation between their employees.
The employer might defend their policy by emphasizing that unfairness might not truly exist in organization, but the perception of unfairness by a misguided employee could trigger a nasty reaction and disrupt the workplace. In the context of self-justification, most people think they do work that is superior to their coworkers, but not everyone who believes this can be correct! From the perspective of the employer, it is best not to talk about these things, except during the review process with your supervisor.
There is the possibility that the pay scale is actually unfair, where equal work is actually earning unequal pay. In this scenario, it is also in the best interest of the employer to prevent discussion of these things among their employees. Of course the motivation is completely different in this case…if the employer had to correct actual unfairness in pay scales, they would likely have to give raises to all the underpaid staff, and that would cost a lot of money. Plus, it would call into question the trustworthiness of the employer in the eyes of some of their employees. Many employees are not motivated primarily by money, so the call out on the trust problem of an employer could lead to reduced motivation by these low-paid treasures of employees, or even worse, their departure from the company for greener pastures, with a more trusted and noble employer.
There you have my explanation, so please make sure you do not share any of this article with your friends or co-workers!