Before considering whether you should tell coworkers (who ask) how much you make, you have to consider whether you legally can. In a January 31, 2013 online report, CBS Washington, D.C. reported that, under current legislation, namely, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, employers can sue or otherwise punish employees who share salary information.

On the other hand, it has been claimed  (by a number of commentators) that under interpretations of sections 29 U.S.C. § 157 and U.S.C. § 158(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and in administration of it, discussion of compensation cannot be prohibited by contract or otherwise, if the discussions or disclosures are only among workers, are only about their own compensation and do not occur on the job.

The recently proposed Paycheck Fairness Act ––legislation introduced by U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski  (Maryland) and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut)), if passed, would presumably and unambiguously take care of the “can” (even if the 1935 NLRA has loopholes), leaving the “should”.

According to its two Democrat sponsors, the Paycheck Fairness Act would also allow women to seek punitive damages for pay discrimination, establish a grant program to strengthen salary negotiation and other workplace skills and require the Department of Labor to enhance outreach and training efforts to eliminate pay disparities.

But supposing the Act becomes law, and fear of employer reprisals becomes a thing of the past, should you tell coworkers how much you earn or other details of your compensation and contract (not covered by any confidentiality clause)?

What is there to lose––or gain––in disclosing any of this to coworkers?

The Case Against Telling

Almost instinctively, we seem to feel that revealing this information to coworkers is somehow a bad idea, because

  1. Coworkers may press for comparable compensation, if we make more than they do, which may cause our employer to
  • resent us, with unpredictable, but probably unwelcome repercussions
  • impose workplace cutbacks of some sort to pay for their salary/wage and/or benefit increases
  • freeze or reduce our compensation at the end of our contracts, while increasing theirs
  • increase our workload as a display of employer “fairness”
  • more generally and comprehensively “review” manpower needs, our job descriptions, compensation packages and work load, with adverse consequences for us
  • replace us with them or with equally lower-pay staff.

2. Coworkers may get raises that obliterate our sense of superiority, high status or special worth.

3. Coworkers may resent us if we make more or view and treat us as inferior, if we make less.

4. Coworkers may hit on us for loans, expect us to pick up the lunch tab, etc., if we make more.

5. Coworkers may scrutinize, challenge or criticize our job credentials and somehow make it an issue with our employer. This is virtually certain to happen if their credentials are better than ours.

6. Coworkers may join revolutionary political parties that overthrow the government, with us among the earliest targets for revenge.

7. Our significant other(s) will berate us for telling.

A Telling Case for Telling?

On the other hand, what about potential gains from a “tell-all” approach? This list seems harder to compile, as benefits of revealing what we make seem less than obvious. But think about it and consider these possibilities:

1. If the coworkers do not perform jobs that are in any way comparable to ours, we can enjoy their perceptions of and respect for our high status. The indispensable precondition for telling them is that their jobs are not similar to ours, which eliminates the likelihood of salary competition among us.

However, if the difference in compensation is “obscene”, e.g., gabillion-dollar executive bonuses vs. unskilled workers’ minimum wage, caution is, as noted above, advised, lest the seeds of revolt and revenge be sown among an angered revolution-minded downtrodden “proletariat”.

2. If, prior to divulging our income and benefits, we had no idea of or only suspicions about the differences between ours and that of coworkers, we can, upon learning the truth, take steps to have ours increased, if ours are less than theirs.

Or we could have an incentive to explore bona fide justifications for the differences and explain them to our coworkers, thereby eliminating their own suspicions and resentments.

3. If we know we make substantially more than our coworkers performing the same or similar tasks, we can tell them—but with expressed regret for the inequitable treatment, which we blame on the employer, thereby turning the otherwise hostile coworkers into allies for the cause of economic justice. Of course, there are, as noted above, risks in this, e.g., a leveling of our income later.

4. If the coworkers are more recent hires, we can explain our more favorable compensation package as the result of a kind of employment-contract “grandfathering” or explain the differences as one impact of the recession after we were hired. This way, we will be seen as being candid and innocent.

5. Our significant other(s) may not find out we’ve told––unless we make “should you tell you’ve told?” a second question to which we reply “yes”.

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