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Could Millennials End Salary Secrecy? (theatlanticwire.com)
44 points by cantbecool on April 18, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments



The whole taboo about talking about salary isn't really about salary. It's about the end result of what happens several steps down the line from people talking about salary.

Say, for example, you and Steve have the same job description and Steve tells you that he makes $40k more than you. You naturally feel screwed, so you go talk to the boss about it. Now, one of two things might happen. It might turn out that you're actually as good as Steve, and just weren't as good at negotiating. That's the best case, and maybe you'll get yourself the raise that everybody always talks about when this topic comes up.

But more likely, you're just not as good at your job as Steve. And now your boss has no choice but tell you so directly. So now you feel even worse, your boss is uncomfortable, and Steve is all self-conscious.

Your boss has thought all this through, so he put that silly policy in place. (Notice how he loses in either case.) The fact that such a policy exists is probably an indicator that you're not actually as good as Steve (or possibly that Steve isn't as good as you), and that no real good will come from discussing salaries with each other.

If you want to talk salaries, do it with people working at other companies. Figure out your real market rate and if your current employer won't match it, go find somebody who will.

Incidentally, a corollary to the above is that you should avoid working at a place where all salaries are public and they pay all their developers the same, based on a few "tiers" or whatever. Unless you expect you're either bad enough at what you do or bad enough at negotiating that you'd normally end up with a salary below the "tier" level, you're guaranteed to leave money on the table in this situation. Probably about 50% of your actual value if you're genuinely good at what you do and can negotiate your way out of a paper bag.


This system is broken.

Just have discrete salary levels that are well understood and public. That way you know what levels everyone is on, there is no negotiation necessary (which is an amoral practice anyway) and everybody can focus on actual work instead of secretly wondering if they're getting screwed compared to some random no-talent clown on their team. You wouldn't need that many different levels either, maybe ten in total. In my country, government jobs already kind of work this way, and the military does, too.

When we were doing our startup, we had three tiers for a company of about 15 people. Everybody in the same tier made the same.


As I said in the comment you're replying to, that's a terrible idea. For, well, the reasons I gave in the comment you're replying to.

It's the same reason that Unions are such a bad idea for professions with wide variation in individual skill (such as software developers). I (and likely you) don't want to be lumped in with whatever the "average" worker of my years experience and skillset is making or able to negotiate. Unless you're in the bottom 50th percentile, you can do better on the open market.

To use your example, the system you advocate would ensure that you were earning the same as that no-talent clown on the next team. Me, I'd prefer to make twice his salary.


As I implied in the comment you're replying to, yours is a terrible idea ;)

I advocate transparency and simplicity not because it's a perfect system for getting the exact amount of compensation appropriate (no such system exists) - I advocate its use over the alternative which is based on empowering the employer only and unfairly rewards people for being good at negotiation. I allege the whole thing is a philosophical artifact created by the idea that unregulated free markets can solve every problem: "just let the workers fight over it, the best will get the most!"

Interestingly, a wide variation is skill is not something that is addressed at all by this don't-ask-don't-tell lottery scheme. If anything, it is based on the idea that two given people with the same skill set end up getting disparately compensated. In what world can that look right to anyone? People wonder why women and minorities get paid less than white males: that is the reason why right there.

The truth is, I'd rather rest well knowing I get the same compensation as a coworker than spending energy wondering whether I'm getting ripped off or not. And here's the shocker: I don't want my coworker to get ripped off either! Now if a team member happens to be awful, and he keeps on failing upwards through the ranks of the company, I prefer to have some visible indicators for that as well. You say you prefer to make twice the salary as that guy, but under the system you're advocating you couldn't even know whether that is indeed the case.

> I (and likely you) don't want to be lumped in with whatever the "average" worker of my years experience and skillset is making.

That really depends on the company and the kind of colleagues you are dealing with. I'd prefer to work in a team where I'm not above everyone else. I like being surrounded by people who inspire me and whom I can maybe inspire in turn. Being lumped together with comparatively untalented coworkers is not just a compensation issue, it also creates an environment where one part of the team has to constantly shoulder additional workload and carry the underperformers (who by the way are almost always better at politics).

Getting back to my levels proposal: it already works elsewhere, it's just not used that much in our industry for cultural (and probably philosophical) reasons. Yes, skills vary, but the negotiation-based system addresses this in an even worse way than compensation levels do. My experience with running a level-based system has been overwhelmingly positive. It was pleasant from an administrative point of view, and it created zero contention among employees.


I like to think I'm full of terrible ideas :). Here's another one.

I don't agree with your idea that negotiating is "amoral", nor that rewarding people for being good at negotiation is "unfair", nor that you can get "ripped off" by receiving a salary that you agreed to, nor that a "don't-ask-don't-tell" workplace need be a "lottery".

I think it's fine that people can negotiate with one another, and that being good at negotiating has advantages. I think the most productive thing to do in a world where people negotiate is to learn some basic negotiation skills so as to live in that world.

I think the least productive thing you can do in that world is to try to make everybody stop negotiating for things. Doing so can only make things worse for you, since everybody else will continue negotiating after you stop.


Nowhere is negotiation and politicking more aggressive than in a scenario where it is "officially" disallowed. When you have a "transparency" or "no negotiation" policy you just push this underground.


But for software developers at least, I've seen no correlation (or perhaps even a slight negative correlation) between technical and negotiation ability. So that no-talent clown may actually earn more than you. In the end, many good, underpaid developers leave, because that's how they have a chance to get a fair valuation in the open market.


As developers, we tend to look for technical solutions to things, so when we see a situation like the one you describe, we come up with ideas to "fix" the situation and make everything fair.

But a more productive approach when confronted with the fact that "negotiation skill seems to have more bearing on how much I can make than technical skill" might be to just take advantage of that fact. If tech folk are as generally bad at negotiating as everybody here seems to agree, the best course would seem to be to simply get better at negotiating.

That's actually quite easy to do. And if you do so, you'll make a lot more money.

That's a good thing.


If tech folk are as generally bad at negotiating as everybody here seems to agree, the best course would seem to be to simply get better at negotiating.

Boom! Good idea. Tech people are generally super confident about their abilities to learn things fast. Negotiating is just another skill in your career tool-kit (and a very lucrative one, in my experience).


If you would just think a little bit, you would realize that negotiation is not a technical skill.


Sometimes I do think a little bit. :)

I didn't say it's a technical skill - but it is a human skill, that can be learned.


Sorry for being rude, but I do not understand your reasoning. Yes, technical people often learn quickly - but only if they are interested in what they are learning and if it is reasonably "technical". A "technical" person might have hard time learning social skills that are easy for most people.


That's fair.


It is only good for people who are good at negotiating or want to get good at it. There exists another class of people who consider salary negotiations fundamentally unfair and have no desire to get better at them.

Negotiation is stressful, a waste of time and not interesting at all for many software developers. It would just be better for the public good for no salary negotiations to take place, because people would worry less about being underpaid. Less stress is almost always good for work productivity. And there will be more justice.

Just have clear salary guidelines for every engineer level. Levels would be public and so would be salaries, bonuse, stock grants and performance reviews.


First, you have no idea of the earnings of the "clown" because that information is not disclosed or offered. Then you are assuming you make twice his salary. Then you are attacking suggestions that you could check if this were true as a "terrible idea".

The whole issue is you have no way of knowing if the "clown" is making double your salary or not. This can breed resentment of individuals, just as knowing peoples salaries can. People are complex beasts. For my limited experience, in all likelihood banning talk of salary or not probably has very little effect.


While the differences skill levels are true, I don't think "you are just not as good as Steve" is the usual case for salary differences.

Salaries tend to stay mostly fixed while in employment at a single company, raises over 10% are rare. As a result, salary is much more related to your negotiation and self-marketing skills at the time of the interview - when the new employer has very little hard evidence of your developer skills - than any objective measure. You might in fact be much better than Steve, but may have changed jobs less often, or have worked on less marketable past projects.

For example, I've never heard of anyone negotiating upwards based on relative skills, as in "Bob is making X, I'm 3 times better, therefore my salary should be 3X".


Say, for example, you and Steve have the same job description and Steve tells you that he makes $40k more than you. You naturally feel screwed, so you go talk to the boss about it. Now, one of two things might happen. It might turn out that you're actually as good as Steve, and just weren't as good at negotiating. That's the best case, and maybe you'll get yourself the raise that everybody always talks about when this topic comes up.

But more likely, you're just not as good at your job as Steve.

If Steve is a better engineer than I am, then I'll be more likely to know that than most managers. Now, software is structurally cooperative so I am just not going to raise a stink if a superior engineer makes $40k more, because he's worth it. If he's genuinely better than I am, then my attitude is, "damn right he deserves to be better paid; look at how much I learn from him every day!"

I'm not one to make waves over differences in salary. I have too much other shit that I automatically raise hell over (unfairness in project allocation, unfair review policies). I tend to let salary flamewars go. Gotta pick your battles.

And now your boss has no choice but tell you so directly. So now you feel even worse, your boss is uncomfortable, and Steve is all self-conscious.

If he's a good boss, in that circumstance, he'd tell me what I need to do to be in Steve's position in 2 years. If he's going to pay Steve $40k more because he has more immediate-term value, then fine. If I want the boss to invest in my career so I can be a Steve in two years, and he's not willing to do that, then we have to break.


Job market is just like any other market - governed by supply and demand. Currently, it is not efficient. In fact, not even close to being efficient. This is because, a key characteristic of an efficient market is perfect sharing of information.

This is why ending Salary Secrecy is a good thing - for both the employer and employee. It might seem that the employer is most affected (as the article suggests), but that is not always true. If there is an equally talented person who is not paid well, someone would eventually make a better offer. He would take that offer thinking that his current company would never pay that well.

While tweeting your salary might be quite unlikely, most employees today don't mind sharing their salary details with their friends. It simply helps to understand what the market demand is and improves efficiency of a broken system.


equally talented person who is not paid well

People are naturally going to disagree about things like equally talented ("Of course my UI was equally difficult to make as Bob's graphics engine! Maybe even harder!") and paid well ("Are you serious? I made 30% than that at my last job!")


You are right, such terms are ambiguous. But I would be happy even if employees playing the _same role_ achieving the same results get paid the same. But that is often not the case.


There's an important detail about market efficiency in the atomicity of the market. For an individual job, are there really that many applicants (living in the area, for example) to be able to consider them mostly the same? Inversely for an individual, are there enough equivalent jobs for him to consider a 'job market' in the way economists consider markets for houses/apples/cars?

I honestly don't know.


It's a ridiculous one-sided advantage to suppliers of labor if we keep our mouths shut. Perhaps by speaking "that which must not be spoken," we can make salary decisions more open and fair across the board.


In Norway, taxable income is public information. It used to be that it was so public that newspapers would put up searchable databases where you could enter name and postcode to get a list of everyones income and fortune. It's been restricted a little bit. The idea is that it acts as a deterrent to tax evasion and money laundering (your neighbour gets suspicious about that new Ferrari you bought) etc..

I don't really have much of an opinion about whether it's good or bad - people mostly don't care other than 5 minutes of excitement when the numbers were out when online news sites still published them.


They do that in Ontario (and possibly other jurisdictions), but only with Public employees and only over $100,000.

The idea is that "my taxes pay your salary", so the public has a right to know in that situation.

In the case of a private company, it's confidential corporate information. Publicly owned companies have their own reporting rules (generally only requiring disclosure for officers).


When I first heard about how easy it was to look up a person's income in Norway, I was blown away. I'd personally hate for that information to be public. I think perhaps in Norway, there is a bit less disparity in incomes, it's a little closer to equal. The wealthy are also heavily taxed. So it makes things a little less uncomfortable when your friends, colleagues, family members, etc. know exactly how much you make.


That's true. I'm Norwegian, but live in England now, and I make a lot more here than what I would in Norway, and my neighbours make a lot less here than what they would in ordinary "blue collar" jobs in Norway. But I think also the novelty wears off very quickly. It was fun to "spy" on friends and neighbours once or twice, but then it just starts feeling a bit icky.


It was mostly the media who got off on this, to the point of creating mobile apps that gave you information about how much people near you made. Ridiculous. I'm glad it's been restricted in that regard.


Coworker pay is irrelevant. The contract is between you and your employer.

I've seen people tie themselves in terrible knots over this. It's a losers' game. Instead of getting organised and creating the life they want, they take the lazy option and get caught up over what people in their immediate context are doing.

When you apply for work, you need to have a good idea of what you're worth in the broader market, and what kind of work environments you'd like. Having done that, look broadly, negotiate thoroughly, and get something that works for you. When you're not happy, make new arrangements.


"When you apply for work, you need to have a good idea of what you're worth in the broader market"

Which is why coworker pay is not irrelevant.


Through your wage, the employer is already communicating to you the point at which they cut their losses on you and let you go. Maybe through hard bargaining you could inch a bit more out, but to do it you have to introduce an unpleasant penny pinching theme into your relationship with coworkers and employer.

If you're working in a situation where you feel you're tied to a single company needing to gouge out pay increases on the basis of what the guy next to you is being, you're already screwing yourself from so many angles that you have bigger problems to be thinking about. Instead of worrying about some fractional adjustment to your wage, you should be worrying about becoming more valuable, broader, flexible, self-sufficient.

This is an interesting topic because cultures have very different attitudes about negotiating. Here's a wave from the London morning crowd. The English tend to be silent-auction, sudden-death negotiators. It will be interesting to see what the Americans have to say when they get in.


"Through your wage, the employer is already communicating to you the point at which they cut their losses on you and let you go."

The fact that plenty of people have gotten wage increases by threatening to leave their company disproves this notion. Your wage is not the point at which companies will let you go, it is the minimum amount needed to retain you.

"but to do it you have to introduce an unpleasant penny pinching theme into your relationship with coworkers and employer."

This is a sad sad culture where asking for what you're worth is considered 'unpleasant' to your relationships with colleagues and employers.


Exactly, it's just a negotiation. Just be happy with what you've agreed to and don't complain for at least a year once you're finished.


> the employer is already communicating to you the point at which they cut their losses on you and let you go.

Have you ever been on the employer side? Because I have. I've been involved in negotiating and setting salaries for the last 18 years, for dozens of employees.

Your statement above has never been true in any of the companies I've worked. It would have been true if the employees were all perfect negotiators, everyone had perfect information, and we were quite weak negotiators and ended up being pushed until stretching.

In reality, hiring managers tend to have much more information - when hiring we know what we can hire others for, as well as what others have accepted, and what a typical employee will bring in. We also know much better what the market is like. You will likely get an offer that is low enough that some candidates will walk away from it.

On top of that, most potential employees are shit at negotiating. Most never negotiate at all - they take the offered number or leave it, but they rarely push.

But the first offer is never my best. Why? Because it doesn't have to be, and we'd be throwing money out the window if it was.

On the flip side, when I am the one seeking a job, I never, ever accept a first offer. I've never had a job offer I couldn't negotiate up. Anything from 10% to 40%. For most type of professional jobs you're likely to get a 5%-10% increase over the initial offer just from saying the offer is a bit on the low end, and asking if that's the best they can do.

At the same time, raises are hit and miss. If someone does something that really merits a raise, sure. But 90% of the time it is not obvious, and chances are we miss things that someone has done when we evaluate them that could have led to a raise if they, or their co-workers told us. This is part of the reason why people often get those "shock increases" when they apply for a new job: Applying forces them to update their CV's, which forces them to think about and formulate what value they bring. Most employees never actually tell their managers about that, on the assumption they know. They're very often wrong.

> Maybe through hard bargaining you could inch a bit more out, but to do it you have to introduce an unpleasant penny pinching theme into your relationship with coworkers and employer.

Frankly, I respect the employees that come to me and negotiate _more_, as long as they have done their homework and knows what they are worth, and can explain to me why. They are demonstrating that they understand their value to the business. Those are the employees that also tend to actively try to increase their value to the business.


On top of that, most potential employees are shit at negotiating. Most never negotiate at all - they take the offered number or leave it, but they rarely push.

This is why the article sounded so strange to me. It seems like the idea that's really being pushed is that negotiation is bad, which is an easy sell because most people have a strong aversion to it. They're eager to find a reason to not have to do it, even when they suspect they're underpaid.

It's the uncertainty that causes so much angst, not the money in absolute terms, and appeasing that uncertainty by convincing the median earners that it's okay to gossip seems like a great way to get them to never ask for more. They will gladly continue leaving money on the table if only they can be confident that nobody else is taking it.


Negotiation IS bad. Why would a thing that most people have aversion be considered good? There must be strong reasons for it to be good for the median employee, and there is none.


Wish I could upvote this more. I haven't been on the salary setting side but from my experience negotiating on the employee side it is all true.


> Through your wage, the employer is already communicating > to you the point at which they cut their losses on you > and let you go.

In general companies don't pay you what they value you at; they pay you what they value you at, or what you choose to accept, whichever is lower.

I mean, getting work done for $x and selling it for $y and pocketing the $y-x economic surplus as profit is what business is all about.


"It's better for you to be kept in the dark about co-worker's salaries. It is better you be ignorant of it. Knowing too much is a 'bad habit'. It's none of your business. Just sit at your desk and code. It's better when you go get your yearly raise that your management chain holds all the cards and information, and that you are ignorant and isolated."

Thanks for the advice.


Regarding the HR comment, the Fair Labor Standards Act forbids employers from forbidding employees from discussing their salaries.


Yep, but ask the average worker if they know this. That law doesn't keep this clause from appearing in employment contracts either.


Yes and no. That is true, but it's also possible, with white-collar work, for people to be fired "for performance" for pretty much any reason. That's the danger when you work on stuff where performance is pretty much impossible to define or measure.

You have the legal right to disclose pay (except in a job with a security clearance) but most companies will isolate you, then make sure you get the worst work with impossible deadlines, document everything, ruin your reputation internally (though performance reviews that follow you if you try to transfer) and finally subject you to whatever passive-firing system they have around.

I'm not saying that it's bad to discuss salary. You should figure out if you're getting a fair deal. But you do not want your employer to catch you disclosing salary. It will end badly.


I am generally in favor of transparency. In this case I am definitely in favor of more high level transparency about wages. But when it gets to the specific data about one person and their coworkers it gets more difficult due to various cognitive biases (including the Dunning Kruger effect). I would be interested in the results of experiments in complete transparency and how they deal with these issues. I wouldn't currently undertake the experiment because I don't know of a way to structure it that allows it to fail and not be permanent.


Well my employer does tell us the median salary for our roles. If you have clearly defined roles within your organization then salary woes should not be an issue. It is part of being a professional organization. Then you back this structure with a clear process for evaluation and advancement. Advancement does not necessarily need to be upward.


no.


Excellent rebuttal. You had me convinced at "n".


Ok, so what are your perceived advantages of knowing your colleagues salary?

We also follow this so-called "taboo" in our office, and everything is peaceful. There is a rule to not talk about it, but it is not strictly enforced...if one really would like to reveal his salary, he could; but it seems that there just isn't a motivation to do that.


It's hard to enforce one's rights under the Equal Pay Act without knowing if there's a salary disparity.

BTW, it's not like this knowledge makes things significantly worse in the workplace. Government employee salaries are public, and where I live now (Sweden), all salaries are public. The newspaper even publishes each year the top wages in the local area.


Harder for management to rip people off by underpaying them.


I suspect that a lot of people mostly don't want to confront potentially unpleasant truths about how their employer values them in a relative sense.

Probably a self-confidence thing as much as anything.


How their employer values them should be reflected only in the title - be it Sr. Whatever, Whatever or Jr. Whatever.

EDIT (meta): How many times it should be stated on HN that downvoting is not for expressing disagreement...

Just reply your opinion and move on.


So everyone gets paid the same and is compensated with an increasingly fancy title?

Someone will benefit from that arrangement, but it won't be the majority of employees.


I'm not a huge fan of fancy titles either. What I meant to say is that the salary should reflect the contribution. So if two person contribute the same value to the company, they should have same compensations.

Which is not necessary tied to titles, right.

The only entity which benefits from salary secrecy is the employer itself.


I see what you mean now.

I misunderstood the meaning from your original posting - I thought you meant that the CTO should get paid the same as a junior programmer should get paid the same as a janitor.


>Ok, so what are your perceived advantages of knowing your colleagues salary?

This looks like a loaded question. It's not a perceived advantage, it's a real advantage to know how much you are paid compared to others. I'm still in college and I like the fact that scores are public. When I'll get hired, how do I maximize what I get paid if I don't know what others are getting?


It tells me if the company pays fair market value for everyone, or if I'm just a bad negotiator. :-)


good thing I got you convinced. I thought really hard if I should put "o" at the end, because my argument was so airtight, but I did anyway.


Yet another case of Betteridge's law.


I think the most important thing to know about Millennials is that we're the exact opposite of the smear thrown at us. Boomers call us "entitled" at work. We're actually disentitled.

An entitled person expects a social contract to be upheld, and usually the pejorative aspect of the word "entitled" implies that it's one-sided advocacy.

We're disentitled because we no longer believe in the corporate social contract at all. We'd be entitled if we expected the other side to follow the rules. We don't. We know they won't, so we break just as many rules. Sure, it's bad for social harmony to people to figure out if they're getting screwed. You know what? Fuck that! I find it worse that people are getting screwed.


Cynically, Millennials can be coaxed into doing anything if they can be convinced it's sticking it to The Man.


There's a lot of truth in this. I can't stand hipsters because they're a bunch of cargo-culters who have no idea why they're rebelling, or which targets deserve it and which ones don't.

I've worked in corporations. I have the right to hate them. I have more insight into corporate evil than 99.99% of people alive. If you dick around in Williamsburg and haven't seen the morning sun since college, then you don't understand why corporations do what they do and have no right to complain about them.

Reflexively hating suburbia, for one example, is the epitome of being suburban. I'm surprised by how many people don't get that.


I find it worst of all if I find that I am getting screwed. I'm much more able to keep the peace if it's other people.




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