Why are we afraid to discuss salaries?

People often find it awkward to discusss salaries for fear of resentment or pity.

When I started working, I was making a little over JM$70,000 per month. My rent, utilities and student loan took up much of that. Most of that. OK, nearly all of that.

Recently, I was with friends at the beach listening to them discuss what they would like to accomplish professionally and how much they would like to be making as a basic salary by retirement. At first, I paid very little attention to what was being said because few things exasperate me more than discussing work when I’m not at work.

However, while pretending to have an enormous interest in a floating bit of seaweed, I was struck by a revelation – I had never heard people openly discussing salaries before. As in, never in my 30 years of life have I heard people speaking about how much they made in dollars and cents; benefits and allowances included.

“We ultimately have a responsibility to ensure discussion about finances, salaries included, are had to remove associations of resentment, fear and unease about something which affects us all.”

Vague allusions and references to salary scale and industry wages aside, people do not discuss how much they make. And I get it, money is a sensitive issue. Whether you’re loaning, borrowing, earning, or trying to collect it, people just don’t feel comfortable talking about money.

We have all been to career days and fairs, where the guest speakers say ‘Starting salary in this field is…’ or ‘You can make up to…’ but none has ever said in plain speak ‘I make XYZ dollars per month’. But why?

Truth be told, there is a lot of apprehension about discussing salaries regardless of who you speak to. If it’s a co-worker, it’s the fear of them knowing you make more than they do or worse discovering that you are at the lower end of the pay scale. With friends, there is also hesitation because there is always the possibility of receiving pity or resentment; depending on how well (or not) you make out monthly.

It is rare to have discussions about salaries because money is always a sensitive issue.

I started out in journalism and what I learnt very quickly was that it does not pay (most people) well. From one media company to the other, salaries are woefully low, and that’s just the plain industry truth. Even within individual media houses, the disparity between salaries of reporters doing relatively similar work with similar output can vary drastically. My peers, many of whom happened to be good friends, realised early on that, based on starting salaries alone, we would not be able to make a great living for some time unless we were able to climb the ladder of seniority in an impossibly quick time.

While we never discussed it in blatant terms, we knew generally that most of us were not being paid well or fairly in some cases. And while it’s perhaps tasteless to say, money is the primary reason most people stay or leave a place of employment, whether we want to accept it or not. Many people leave jobs where they felt gratified to work somewhere they are less comfortable but which pays more.

When you see a job vacancy advertised, one of the first things you look for is the salary. And if it’s not there, it’s likely one of the first things asked if called in for an interview.

Salary discussions are not usually discussed by people at the same job for fear of finding out you are on the lower end of the pay scale.

However, while I am all for openness and full disclosure where industry wages and compensation are concerned, I understand that people have genuine concerns and fears about doing so. But I do believe we ultimately have a responsibility to ensure discussion about finances, salaries included, are had as part of the larger picture to remove associations of resentment, fear, and unease about something which affects us all.