Don’t Ask Coworkers What They Make

If you’re feeling undervalued at work, you’re not alone — far from it. Only 20 percent of employees think they’re paid fairly, according to a 2017 report from PayScale, an online salary, benefits, and compensation information company.

By contrast, 44 percent of employers said they felt their staff were getting a fair salary. That kind of disconnect can leave you feeling frustrated and unmotivated.

Plus, the gut feeling that you’re underpaid is probably correct. A 2016 analysis by Glassdoor found that employees are underpaid by nearly $5,000 a year on average, when compared with relevant open jobs on the market.

The situation is worse for women, who make only 80 cents for every dollar men earn, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. For women of color, it’s even lower than that — black and Hispanic women make just 65 and 58 cents for every man’s dollar, respectively.


So why not just talk about it? After all, transparency is a good thing: When companies choose to share salary data, as tech firms Buffer and SumAll have done, that can promote fair pay. And on the whole, communication around value is something that women in the workforce should be — and have been — striving toward, as movements for paycheck transparency and efforts like Equal Pay Day gain momentum. And this in spite of policies stemming from the current administration looking to hinder those efforts.

Many Millennials may wonder why inquiring about salary information is so taboo in the first place, considering it’s a strategy that plenty of people use to see if they’re being paid fairly. But even if you are tempted to ask your colleagues about what they make to know what you should be earning, it can backfire. Asking about coworkers’ salaries can seem like a great way to get intel or simply commiserate, but there are actually better ways to find out. Here’s why:

1. You could get backlash from the higher-ups. Under the National Labor Relations Act, it’s illegal for employers to bar staff from chatting about wages with each other. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frowned upon. A 2010 survey from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that about half of workers said their employers discouraged or punished people for talking about compensation. So even if your boss can’t legally stop you from discussing salary with your coworkers, nosing around might put your career trajectory at risk.

2. You risk damaging relationships with colleagues. Talking money makes many people squirm. A 2015 survey conducted by Nielsen and financial expert Nicole Lapin, for instance, found that more than two-thirds of American adults would rather disclose their weights than their incomes. If you ask an office buddy to reveal her salary, you risk making her feel bad for earning less than you, or like you’re bragging for bringing in more dough — or, on the flip side, you might make her feel guilty or awkward for earning more than you do. By putting your colleagues on the spot, it’s easy to make things awkward — or even screw up your relationships with them.

3. You could get faulty intel. To save face, your colleagues may fudge the number they give you. Or their pay may not apply in your situation. When one of my clients was vying for a job in a different division of her company, she asked a colleague in that department how much money he earned. When she named that figure during interviews, she lost out on the gig — turns out it was much higher than what she qualified for, given her previous role. So remember: Every situation is different.


4. It won’t actually help you get a raise.Pointing out that Jane makes more than you do isn’t going to endear you to your superiors — in fact, in my experience, it could make you look whiny. There’s a huge difference between doing market research to determine the range you should be in and saying, “Jane makes $10,000 more than I do, and that’s not fair since we do the same thing.” You don’t know what Jane brings to the table or why she may be qualified to earn more. Effectively asking for a raise requires demonstrating your value — and statements like these don’t help an employer understand yours.

5. You could end up feeling worse. Measuring your income against others’ could leave you feeling insecure, jealous, or frustrated. Even if you have the same level of education and experience as someone who earns more, you can’t fully know what she has to offer. Instead, focus on the number that would feel fair to you and make you feel valued.

The key to getting a raise is knowing your own market value and communicating it clearly. To negotiate a raise, you do need to do your homework, but it’s possible to research the going salaries for your role without risking your relationships or feeling insecure. Consult websites such as, PayScale, and Glassdoor to find out what your employer or similar companies are paying in your geographic area (while keeping in mind that the data isn’t verified).

You could also consider reaching out to people who used to work for your company, mentors who may have been in your position, or people in similar roles at a different organization. Just remember to ask for a range rather than for a specific number — and if they disclose their info, you should feel comfortable revealing your salary too. Finally, you could befriend a recruiter, who often has the best information on salaries — for example, one of my clients will take every recruiter’s phone call, even though she’s not looking, to stay on top of her market value.

While these options may be more difficult than just asking your colleagues, it’s less risky. And, by going these routes, you may end up with an even better outcome — a number higher than what you thought you could get.