We all know that we aren’t supposed to talk about compensation with our coworkers, right? It’s supposed to be one of the biggest office “faux paus” out there. I always believed this myself in my career and I can recall one particular employer of mine who had a firm rule about this and was straightforward with employees that they could be terminated for talking about their salaries. In fact, I can still recall the conversation with my boss years ago when she was moving me to a management role and we were discussing my new salary. She informed me that disclosing this to anyone else could lead to termination. It honestly made sense to me at the time and I didn’t question it for second.

Typically speaking, you tend to find this type of policy, called a pay secrecy policy, in higher-level, exempt roles where the job requires more skill and education. How common are these policies? Very.  A 2011 survey from the Institute for Women's Policy Research found that about half of workers "report that the discussion of wage and salary information is either discouraged or prohibited and/or could lead to punishment." You can read more about the issue at

Has anyone ever stopped to think about why employers have that rule though? If we are all being paid fairly, what’s the problem? Well, because we are NOT all being paid fairly, of course. The pay gap for women and minorities is still very real, unfortunately.  Having said that, compensation, and people for that matter, are complicated. While we need to eradicate discrimination, it’s also not as simple as just saying that we should all be paid the same if we are doing the same work.  What is “fair” is highly subjective and based on many factors such as job location, experience, education, negotiating skills….. the list goes on.  How you define “the same work” is also very difficult. Two people in the same position do not always perform to the same level.  I don’t believe that just because two people have the same job title and work at the same company, that they should be paid exactly the same salary. Some people are better at what they do than others, or better educated.

But here is where the issue gets very uncomplicated: Plain and simple, pay secrecy policies are illegal. That’s right, with very few exceptions, employers cannot restrict your right to discuss your pay. If you think about it, how else would anyone ever uncover discrimination? Theoretically, if employers have nothing to hide, then why would they discourage you from talking about pay? Well again, money makes things complicated. Even if employees are being paid equitably, there will always be people who believe they should be making more and will raise the issue. Everyone believes they should be paid as much as possible, but not everyone is willing to admit that maybe the person in the cubicle next to them actually is doing a better job or does have more experience than them. But then again, maybe they don't. That is where the issue gets sticky, in proving whether or not discrimination is taking place, or if the pay difference is justified. Employers probably assume that it is better for everyone to simply not discuss it.

Whatever side of the issue you are on though, the bottom line is that those policies are illegal and employees do have the right to discuss pay. Of course, there is one final point to consider. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should. If you do ask for a co-worker's salary, are you prepared for their answer, good or bad? What will you do with that information once you learn it? Whether or not you choose to have that conversation with your co-worker is a personal decision and you should think it over first. 

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