Should You Ask Your Co-Workers How Much Money They Make? Experts Weigh In On This Tricky Topic

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For the third year in a row, Bustle's Upstart Awards are honoring young women who are doing incredible things in the realms of business, STEM, fashion and beauty, the arts, philanthropy, and beyond. Want to be an Upstarts honoree one day? Read on for career tips, insights, and inspiration to help get you there.

For most people, talking about money ranks somewhere between "doing your taxes" and "getting an emergency root canal" in terms of enjoyable activities. Negotiating your salary or asking for a raise isn't just about numbers on a page — they are issues that raise real existential questions about how much your time is worth, how you choose to allocate your resources, and whether or not you can afford that margarita machine.

In order to determine whether you're being fairly compensated for your work, it can be useful to have some context about how much other people in similar positions are being paid. But this raises one of the most difficult questions of all — should you actually ask your co-workers how much they're making?

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Although culturally it's considered taboo to talk about our salaries, talking about your pay is actually a right protected under the law. In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act made it illegal for employers to discourage their workers from openly discussing their salaries, because legislators recognized that a lack of information gave employers an unfair advantage in setting and negotiating salaries.

Some experts argue that discussing pay is too risky, though, and can lead to tension in the workplace. Moritz Kothe, CEO of kununu, an employment review platform, tells Bustle he considers the conversation a "no win" situation. "Should you ask someone what they make, you'll either find out they make more and you'll be unhappy, or they'll find out you make more and they'll be unhappy," he says.

"In most cases salary transparency acts as a motivator and benefits the employee over the company."
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But as uncomfortable as it may be, is this tension necessarily a bad thing? After all, if someone is upset about not being paid the same as someone doing similar work, the problem isn't that they're upset, it might be that they're being unfairly compensated in the first place. White women generally make 20 percent less than men in similar positions, and the gap is even larger for black women and Hispanic women, who make only 65 and 59 cents on the dollar to white men, respectively. Openly discussing salaries allows workers to hold employers accountable for possible wage discrimination.

In addition, some experts reject the concept that salary transparency leads to tension. "Sure, some employees may become jealous or actually demotivated if they learn a colleague is making more money than they are," says Nicole Wood, co-founder and CEO of the career coaching company Ama la Vida. "But in most cases salary transparency acts as a motivator and benefits the employee over the company."

So broadly, it seems knowing how much your co-worker makes is useful information. But before you stomp over to your colleague's desk and demand to see their last pay stub, remember that people's pay is still a sensitive topic that should be broached delicately. Here are some things to keep in mind when asking your co-worker how much they make.

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Before you ask your co-worker how much they make, evaluate your relationship with them and consider whether or not the conversation would help you or hurt you.

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"Complete trust is absolutely crucial," Laura MacLeod, career expert and founder of From The Inside Out Project, tells Bustle. "Discussions about money can be interpreted as greedy, materialistic, inappropriately competitive and not fully invested — meaning you're there for the money and not because you believe in the company, mission, or project. You're not a team player. If any of this gets around the office and back to your boss, it will be very detrimental and you'll never get the salary you feel you deserve."

In other words, you're better off talking to a co-worker with whom you're friendly rather than the office gossip.

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Given that pay is such a sensitive topic, it's important to approach the conversation delicately.

"When addressing a co-worker, it’s best to tread carefully and ease into the discussion. Share with them your goals and your desire to further your salary and the let the conversation flow," says Brad Stultz, human resources director of TotallyPromotional.com.

"You might even share that it's uncomfortable," MacLeod adds. She suggests you say something along the lines of: "I've got a question for you. Feels a little odd to ask, but we've known each other for a while and I respect you and your work. I've been kind of unhappy with my salary — feel it's not what the industry norm is. Wondering if you are making the same and what you think about it."

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Whether you choose to discuss salaries with your co-workers or not, you should be talking to your employer as well. Lauren Nutt Bello, partner and managing director at Ready Set Rocket, a digital marketing and advertising agency, is more skeptical about asking your colleagues how much they make, and advocates opening a dialogue with your employer instead. "If the employer is responsible and fair about compensation decisions, that is a matter that should be handled between the employee and their boss," she says. "It should be an open dialogue where clear goals are aligned on and understood, expectations are clearly set, and there is no ambiguity around how and why compensation growth can be achieved."

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While these are broad guidelines, and everyone's situation is unique, asking your colleagues how much they make, if approached correctly, can be a valuable practice.

"Asking colleagues how much money they make can put you in a position of power when entering salary negotiations with your employer," says Wood. "You are not only arguing your worth in terms of your contributions, but you also have direct compensation benchmarks which are valuable in any negotiation."

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