Awkward, But Worth It: Why It Pays To Know What Your Co-Workers Are Making

The thought may have crossed your mind on more than one occasion: what is your co-worker — sitting right next to you with similar qualifications and the same job description — making each month? Is it more or less than your own paycheck? You'd never dare ask the question because it's awkward and maybe even unprofessional. But, is it, really?

Dane Atkinson, tech entrepreneur and founder of marketing analytics company SumAll, would argue that it's not wrong at all (via Business Insider). He would tell you that it could actually be very beneficial for you, your company, and even your entire industry. SumAll is based on a concept of pay transparency, where all employees' full salaries are made available for everyone to see. Atkinson believes this has made both the employees and management happier and more productive and has led to "a lot of motivation, a lot of hard work, [and a] huge reduction in bureaucracy."

So, while there are certainly some cringeworthy things you could be saying at work, questions regarding pay are not something you should be concerned about.

Why it's good to know how much your co-workers earn

According to management researcher David Burkus, knowing your colleagues' pay can improve "feelings of fairness and collaboration inside a company" (via TED Ideas). When there's transparency about how much your co-workers make, there's less of a chance of feeling underpaid or discriminated against. Burkus also highlights the economic concept of "information asymmetry," which is a situation that arises when information isn't equitably distributed. "Just think how much better you could negotiate for a raise if you knew everybody's salary," he notes.

Burkus added that even if asking how much someone working alongside you is getting paid is awkward, it can be more unsettling to wonder if you're being treated differently. How a company chooses to be transparent can vary, but regardless of their chosen method, the decision can affect overall performance. "In study after study, when people know how they're being paid and how that pay compares to their peers', they're more likely to work hard to improve their performance, more likely to be engaged, and less likely to quit" Burkus explained.

Jeffrey Moriarty, a philosophy professor and executive director of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics, told U.S. News that remuneration transparency creates a fair playing field, driving management to "make rational pay decisions" and can prevent unjustifiable salaries. It can also help bridge the gender pay gap between men and women. 

How to approach asking questions about pay

You're likely to battle with the ingrained feeling that asking someone about their salary is unbecoming or unprofessional. If it helps, you can remind yourself that you and your co-workers have a right under the National Labor Relations Act to talk openly about how much you make, according to the National Labor Relations Board.

You can practice discussing the topic with outside confidants before you bring it up at work, but only after you've built a relationship with your colleagues (via Lifehacker). Broach the subject as a natural progression from discussing job satisfaction or your goals and dreams. You can also make the entire discussion much less awkward by explaining that your concern is tied to fairness. Stating your intention can make your co-worker less apprehensive and more likely to open up. Also, be willing to share your own salary to make your colleague more willing to reveal their pay.

If you're being bullied by a co-worker, management, or company, there are systems in place that you can turn to. However, when it comes to salary inequalities, it becomes harder to fight for your worth when you're not aware of the disparity in the first place. As compensation expert David Turetsky told CBS News, "Pay transparency is the future. There is no way of getting around it."