Why the age-old taboo against revealing your salary is proving impossible to break
Why the age-old taboo against revealing your salary is proving impossible to break
"How much money do you make?"
If that question freaks you out, there's likely a good reason. Whether it's because of the fear of reprisal from an employer or plain social convention, not talking about your salary has, for generations, been the status quo. But in the last few years, increasing pay transparency has become a common cause for young workers, anti-discrimination advocates, and, increasingly, state legislators.
A blizzard of laws enacted over the past decade have prohibited employers from firing or punishing workers for talking about their salaries. All told, nearly half of US states penalize bosses for discouraging or banning workers from asking their colleagues in nearby cubicles — or on Slack — about their pay. And in 2022, New York, California, and Washington joined Colorado by passing laws that require companies to post salary ranges for all advertised positions.
At the same time, more people are willing to discuss salaries openly. Millennials and Gen Z have a growing distaste for the "last taboo:" Young people are more willing than their older peers to discuss pay with colleagues, friends, or with complete strangers on TikTok.
Changing generational norms and new laws protecting workers' rights to transparency are starting to erode the deep-seated cultural taboo of salary talk, but there is still a ways to go before we can declare a new era of openly talking about salaries. According to new research that we, the authors, conducted, many companies are still muzzling workers when it comes to pay transparency and many workers still support the hush-hush attitude toward salary sharing.
The (sorry) state of state pay-secrecy bans
The idea behind pay-transparency laws is fairly straightforward. In 2022, women were earning an average of 82% of what men earned, according to Pew Research analysis, and this gap hasn't changed much in the past few decades. Plus, companies also have major pay discrepancies between workers of color. Transparency laws allow workers to discuss salaries with each other, which should, in theory, help balance the scales back toward employees and prevent these unfair pay disparities.
We wanted to see whether the laws were working as intended: Did employees actually feel comfortable sharing their salaries? Were companies no longer punishing workers for being open about their pay? Was this newfound openness helping to reduce pay gaps? What we found was not encouraging.
To get at these answers, we surveyed over 4,000 full-time workers in 2017 and 2018 from across the US about their companies' approaches to pay transparency. We asked respondents to tell us whether their bosses made pay information public, allowed employees to discuss wages and salaries, discouraged such talk, or formally banned it. The two latter items — active discouragement against discussing salaries and formal rules barring it — are exactly the type of rules lawmakers have sought to prohibit. We also gathered information about where respondents worked, allowing us to see whether pay-secrecy rules are less common in states where lawmakers have made them illegal — an indication that those laws are working.
No other type of on-the-job illegality affects such an enormous share of the workforce.
The results of our survey, published in a forthcoming Indiana Law Journal article, found that employers were either ignorant of the laws, intentionally ignoring them, or some combination of the two. Just under half of workers in states that have cracked down on pay-secrecy rules remain subject to a formal or informal rule preventing salary discussions, compared to just over half of workers in states without pay transparency laws. In other words, the laws aren't working.
While the laws are not having a large overall effect on the culture of salary secrecy among employers, they are affecting the types of rules workers said they are subject to. Formal secrecy rules — explicit orders that are sometimes codified in company handbooks, and that often come with specific punishments for violations — are less frequent in states with pay-transparency laws. Fewer than one in 10 workers in states with a secrecy ban report a formal secrecy rule, compared to one in six workers in states that have not passed a secrecy ban. But employers in states with transparency laws make up for it by imposing informal rules that prevent employees from talking about pay. Over a third of workers have bosses that discourage salary talk in states without anti-secrecy laws — and over a third have bosses that discourage salary talk in states with anti-secrecy laws.
The difference might mean that employers tend to believe, wrongly, that transparency laws cover only written or "handbook" rules. Or it could be that employers use informal discouragement practices to cover their tracks. Comparing our data to a 2010 survey reveals a five-point increase in the percentage of workers reporting that they are discouraged from discussing pay, even though over a dozen states enacted anti-secrecy provisions in the interim. So while the overall portion of workers with a formal prohibition against discussing pay declined from 18% to 13% during the same period, the increase in bosses informally discouraging pay discussions negated that progress.
While the results of our survey are stark, they're not exactly surprising. The reality is that most workplace laws are poorly enforced. Whether it comes to paying below the minimum wage, withholding legally guaranteed overtime pay, imposing legally unenforceable noncompete agreements, or illegally interfering with union organizing campaigns, employers regularly break the law and get away with it. But the estimated rates of minimum wage, overtime, non-compete, or union-related infractions pale in comparison to the regularity with which employers unlawfully instruct workers to keep their wages to themselves. And no other type of on-the-job illegality affects such an enormous share of the workforce.
Workers love their bosses
To figure out why pay secrecy has been stubbornly persistent, we asked workers who were subject to a pay-secrecy rule whether they approved of it. If the "new norm" of salary transparency had supplanted the old taboo, then we'd expect a large majority to chafe under outdated restrictions against discussing pay.
That's not what we found.
In general, workers who are subject to rules around pay secrecy seem to like it. Most workers — nearly 70% — support their employer's secrecy rules. That's true even in states where the rules are unlawful. In general, workers seem to like pay secrecy. One obvious interpretation of this finding is that the social salary taboo remains firmly intact. If so, legislative efforts to free the workplace of salary secrecy face an uphill climb because even without rules against it, workers themselves won't push to make their workplace follow the laws and be more transparent.
But that's not the whole story. Our survey also asked workers whose bosses allow them to discuss pay whether they agree with this more transparent approach. Nearly 85% like the pay-transparency policies, a remarkably high percentage given the long-standing proscription against talking about your paycheck. Going beyond simply allowing employees to chat about their pay, almost a quarter of the workforce have workplaces that openly share the salary of each role — a common feature of government employment. Workers at places with such rules also overwhelmingly supported this radical pay transparency — four out of five workers surveyed said they agreed with their bosses' release of pay information. Based on this finding, it seems as if workers like pay transparency once they get used to it — and their more secretive counterparts simply don't know what they're missing out on.
If the boss decreed it, it must make sense.
So whatever approach to pay secrecy or transparency that managers mandate, our survey found that a supermajority of the workers subjected to those rules agreed with them. This makes sense given the widespread legitimacy that employers enjoy. Our survey found that hefty majorities of workers (nearly 60%) agree or strongly agree that managers treat them fairly and honestly. An additional quarter of all respondents report feeling neutral, meaning that less than a fifth of all workers believe that their boss is treating them unfairly. Strong support for managers in general appears to translate into strong support for managerial approaches to pay secrecy or transparency. If the boss decreed it, it must make sense.
Our survey is now a few years old, preceding the pandemic, the so-called Great Resignation, quiet quitting, and the upsurge in worker organizing at major companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Starbucks. So there's a chance that, since our survey, workers have turned against management — and toward a desire for a more transparent workplace. But there's evidence that suggests it hasn't. For example, a 2022 survey from Gallup shows that nearly nine in 10 surveyed workers are either "completely satisfied" or "somewhat satisfied" with their current bosses. Clearly workers largely still support their bosses, meaning that whatever their employers decide, workers are likely to follow.
Is employer legitimacy a pathway to transparency?
Widespread employer legitimacy presents both an obstacle and an opportunity for those interested in spreading pay transparency — and making sure these new anti-secrecy laws actually work. On the one hand, employer legitimacy allows employers to behave illegally in numerous ways without much fear of reprisal.
But legitimacy also opens a window to transparency, because it suggests that employees may follow where their bosses lead and support a workplace policy of pay transparency in large numbers. Our findings reveal that transparency is actually more popular than pay secrecy — a greater share of employees were favorable to their bosses' policy of transparency than were favorable to a secrecy policy. Employers eager to follow the new laws need not worry that their employees will oppose pay transparency.
Of course, many employers aren't so eager. If salary transparency is actually going to become the "new norm," it will clearly require more than our existing set of state laws. It will require aggressive educational campaigns instructing workers of their legal rights. And it will require greater workplace enforcement — it's hard to imagine such widespread flouting of their legal obligations if employers actually feared material consequences.
What it won't require is massive cultural change. The salary taboo is now largely a byproduct of bosses who impose it. If bosses change, their workers will follow suit.
Jake Rosenfeld is a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and the author of "You're Paid What You're Worth and Other Myths of the Modern Economy."
Michael M. Oswalt is a Professor at Wayne State University Law School, where he teaches and writes in the areas of labor and employment law.
Patrick Denice is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario. His research focuses on inequality in education and the labor market.
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