Why we need to talk to our coworkers about our salaries

Society teaches us that it's impolite to discuss money matters, and that rarely feels more true than in the confines of our offices. Asking our coworkers what they make? Talk about uncomfortable. We get it.

"As the saying goes, knowledge is power," says Elle Kaplan, finance expert and founder of LexION Capital. "If you know your coworkers' salaries, it can help you better understand your true worth in the workplace—and then take steps to empower your financial life." Because, let's be real, at a time when women make 79 cents for every $1 a man earns, transparency couldn't be more important.

"Transparency is becoming more and more on trend when it comes to salaries," says millennial career expert Jill Jacinto. And it's long past time for the idea that we can't talk money with coworkers to fade away with other outdated work trends.

Even if talking about salaries is important, it's not going to be easy. You may still squirm before you ask your cube mate what she makes. But, "standing up for yourself and getting your true value—both professionally and financially—is one of the best things you can do for yourself," says Kaplan. And while "there will never be an absolutely perfect time to seek a raise or fair pay," she says, "you should get the ball rolling now." Here's how.

1. Be transparent yourself.

To get, sometimes you have to give. "No one is going to want to share if you don't offer up your numbers," says Kaplan. Jacinto agrees. "If you want [to know what your coworker earns], you might need to be the one who names your salary first," she says. "This will make your coworker relax and willing to share her own."

That's exactly how 24-year-old Rebecca King approached a salary conversation with her friend and colleague. They both divulged their pay, and King was shocked to find out that her friend—who was in a higher position than her—made just $5,000 more. "It made me realize, what am I doing here? Is this what I am working toward, a job that is only worth $5,000 more than what I make?" With that information, King made her move—to another company, she says, where she got a big salary bump.

2. Remember: It's not illegal to ask.

"Despite what your bosses might want you to think, it isn't illegal to discuss salaries in the workplace," says Kaplan. In fact, you have a right to disclose your salary with coworkers that is protected by law. "Don't be intimidated if you want to discuss salary," she says, "and let your coworkers know they aren't doing anything wrong."

What could soon be illegal is for a potential employer to ask you what you made at your last job. New York City is considering passing such a measure, and if it does, other cities and states could soon follow. But this is more than good news—it can be a conversation starter between you and your coworkers. "Use it as a way to open up the conversation about your current salaries," Jacinto suggests.

3. Don't pressure people.

Just because it's legal to talk about your pay doesn't mean it isn't a sticky subject to navigate. "Coworkers don't have to divulge their pay, and if you make them feel pressured to do so, it can have repercussions," warns Kaplan. Be careful with this conversation. "Phrase it in terms of an option to receive fairer pay, and consider having the conversation outside the office, like during a coffee run," she suggests.

When Michelle Peterson, 26, talks salary with her friends, she makes sure to never apply peer pressure. "I always approach it by saying, 'you don't have to share your salary if you don't want to, but I make $X and I'm trying to figure out if that's fair or if I should ask for a raise,'" she says. That pressure-free environment makes people feel safe to share. "It's important to be transparent with salaries to ensure you're being compensated fairly," Peterson says.

4. Look online.

"Comparing pay stubs by the water cooler isn't the only way to find out your fair market value," says Kaplan. So if you simply can't bring yourself to talk salaries with your coworkers, start a search online to see what you should be making. (Glassdoor is a great place to start.) "Even if you can't find the exact salaries of your coworkers, you can see the average pay for your skills and position by geography and industry."

5. Use the information.

The best time to ask about others' salaries? At least six months before your yearly performance review, says Jacinto. That way, "you are armed with as much research as possible and can set yourself up to ask for your fair share," she explains.

Rose Dawydiak-Rapagnani, 29, says she lost out on a raise because she didn't know what others were making before she went into a review. When she finally asked her coworkers what they made, "I was surprised to learn that I was making less than them, but more so, I felt embarrassed that I hadn't asked for more," she says. As she explains, "I graduated from college at the start of the recession, and developed the habit of being so thrilled I was employed that I didn't think to ask for more." But after that reality-check conversation, "I realized I didn't have a reference point for negotiating and had to aggressively earn the self-esteem to get what I deserved," she says. "In my next one-on-one, I ended up asking for a raise and was surprised I got it."

If you want to follow Dawydiak-Rapagnani's lead, of course, and negotiate a raise based on what others are making, "you don't have to divulge names or point fingers," says Kaplan. "Just let your boss know you're aware your pay isn't par with market value. Often, you'll be surprised at how easy it is to get a raise. And on the off-chance your boss does give a reason for your lower salary, he should provide ways that you can bring your performance and pay up to snuff."

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