Why the age-old taboo against revealing your salary is proving impossible to break (2023)

"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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Rosenfeldis 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."

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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.


Why is it taboo to ask about salary? ›

Individuals may be averse to asking about salary not because they want to avoid bothering others, but because they want to avoid being asked to reciprocate by revealing their own information.

Why do people not disclose salary? ›

In today's market, companies also hesitate to advertise their compensation packages because it makes them vulnerable to their competition. Competing organizations could use salary information to win candidates by offering them more money or by targeting high-performing senior staffers.

Why salaries are kept confidential? ›

The biggest reason for maintaining salaries confidential is to mask the pay differences between those performing the same job. Answering queries and grievances on pay disparity is an HR Manager's nightmare.

Can I disclose my salary to coworkers? ›

Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or the Act), employees have the right to communicate with other employees at their workplace about their wages. Wages are a vital term and condition of employment, and discussions of wages are often preliminary to organizing or other actions for mutual aid or protection.

Is it inappropriate to ask about salary? ›

There's nothing wrong with asking about salary during an interview process. Job seekers have a right to protect their time and find out whether a position can pay enough to meet their salary expectations. However, you need to ask tactfully and show employers that salary is just one of many factors you're looking at.

Is it rude to ask for expected salary? ›

By the second interview, it's usually acceptable to ask about compensation, but tact is key. Express your interest in the job and the strengths you would bring to it before asking for the salary range. Make the employer feel confident you're there for more than just the paycheck.

Can I refuse to disclose my salary? ›

The hiring manager may be persistent in requesting this information. You are under no obligation to tell a prospective employer your current salary. However, it is important that you are polite when declining to give your salary information. You cannot simply say “no” and leave it at that.

Why you should talk about your salary? ›

There are potential benefits to openly discussing salary in the workplace, as these conversations can let you know if you're being grossly underpaid, and, in turn, help you negotiate a higher wage.

Should you tell your wife your salary? ›

Starting a conversation with your partner about salary can be rough, especially when you're just getting to know one another. But it is part of being a responsible adult and partner these days. There's no right or wrong way to talk money, even though it may seem uncomfortable.

What are the risks of pay transparency? ›

One of the major pay transparency risks is employee dissatisfaction. Some employees may feel that they aren't being paid fairly in comparison to other colleagues. As this is the case, they may become disengaged which will lead to a decrease in job satisfaction levels.

What are the consequences of pay transparency? ›

Our Nature Human Behavior study also suggests that while pay transparency brings more equitable pay — pay that is more consistently linked to performance across employees — it also results in pay that is flatter, more equal, and less performance based.

Is salary confidentiality illegal? ›

Under Executive Order 11246, you have the right to inquire about, discuss, or disclose your own pay or that of other employees or applicants. You cannot be disciplined, harassed, demoted, terminated, denied employment, or otherwise discriminated against because you exercised this right.

Should you tell people your salary? ›

While it's not technically illegal to discuss your salary, this talk could damage your workplace environment and get you in trouble with your employer. There are a few situations where it might make sense to talk about your salary, but you should handle them delicately so they don't backfire on you.

What is pay secrecy? ›

Pay secrecy or pay confidentiality rules, also known as PSC rules, prohibit employees from discussing their wages with other employees. These rules can be written, verbal, or implied, though having a written rule in the employee handbook reviewed by a labor law attorney is highly recommended.

Can my boss talk bad about me to other employees? ›

It also prohibited “making negative or disparaging comments or criticisms about anyone; creating, and sharing or repeating, a rumor about another person; and discussing work issues or terms and conditions of employment with other employees.” The judge concluded that the policy violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Why do employers not want you to talk about salary? ›

“Employers hate it when employees discuss salaries because it exposes discrimination and other unfair pay practices,” she says. “If your employer has a written policy or contract prohibiting salary discussions, you can report them to the National Labor Relations Board.”

Is it rude to ask a coworker their salary? ›

"Never a good idea"

On the one hand, some salary and career experts say it's a bad idea for individuals to ask coworkers what they earn. "It's never a good idea to turn to colleague and ask what they're making," Turetsky said. "There is no upside."

What do you say when asked about salary? ›

I'm looking for a competitive salary that reflects my qualifications and experience. Based on my research and the requirements of the role as I understand them, I would expect a salary in the range of $X to $Y.

Can you lose a job offer by negotiating salary? ›

It is simple: you can lose a job offer by negotiating salary if you make unreasonable demands or by going below what is expected of the request.

How do you politely negotiate salary? ›

Here are eight tips for how to negotiate a salary that can help you tactfully and confidently ask for what you want.
  1. Become familiar with industry salary trends. ...
  2. Build your case. ...
  3. Tell the truth. ...
  4. Factor in perks and benefits. ...
  5. Practice your delivery. ...
  6. Know when to wrap it up. ...
  7. Get everything in writing. ...
  8. Stay positive.
Apr 7, 2023

How big of a salary range should I give? ›

A good rule of thumb is to keep the lower end of your range at least 10 percent above your current salary, or the number you determine is a reasonable salary for the position. For example, if you currently earn $50,000, you may say that your range is $55,000 to $65,000.

How do you politely decline a disclosure salary? ›

You can politely explain that salary information is confidential and remind them that you don't need to share this information. If the employer is being persistent, you could ask their reasoning for wanting to know.

Can you fire an employee for disclosing salary? ›

No. In California, you cannot be asked about your past compensation and benefits. You also cannot be paid less because you made less at a previous job. Lab.

How many states have salary history bans? ›

As of January 2021, nineteen American states and twenty-one American municipalities have adopted some form of a salary history ban. The first salary history ban was passed in Massachusetts in August 2016. Salary history bans forbid employers from asking candidates their salary histories.

What to do when your coworkers make more than you? ›

What to Do If You Find Out Your Co-worker Earns a Higher Salary
  1. ASSESS THE SITUATION. It's only human to feel frustrated after hearing someone you consider an equal earns more than you. ...
  2. DO YOUR RESEARCH. If you know that you and your co-worker are similar on paper, do some fact-finding. ...
Mar 24, 2021

Why is a salary better? ›

When is salary better than hourly wages? Salary is often better for employers and employees because of its consistency. You pay employees a set amount each pay period based on their annual salary, so money management is easier on both sides.

Why do employers ask what salary you want? ›

Employers want to know salary expectations because they have a budget to stick to. They want to be certain your salary expectations align with the amount they've allotted for a specific role. If most applicants expect a certain range in terms of compensation, the company may provide more budget.

Are you financially responsible for your wife? ›

You are not responsible for someone else's debt. When someone dies with an unpaid debt, if the debt needs to be paid, it should be paid from any money or property they left behind according to state law. This is often called their estate.

How important is salary in a relationship? ›

Over 50% of both women and men said they would choose to be in a relationship with someone even if that person earned significantly less money than them. Of those who answered that they wouldn't be in a relationship with someone who earned significantly less, the reasoning was mostly encouraging.

Should a wife help financially? ›

But to answer your question, a wife needs to honour her husband, respecting the burden of responsibility on him as the leader in their home. Women need to do more to support their husbands in this generation, as so much has changed and the man can hardly bear the financial responsibility of the family alone.

Should you be transparent about your salary? ›

When companies are more open about how they compensate their employees, they're more accountable for implementing fair pay practices. This is precisely why more governments around the world are mandating pay transparency — it's an important step toward closing the wage gap.

What are the disadvantages of transparency? ›

But there is also a “dark side” to transparency. Excessive sharing of information creates problems of information overload and can legitimize endless debate and second-guessing of senior executive decisions. High levels of visibility can reduce creativity as people fear the watchful eye of their superiors.

Does transparency lead to pay compression? ›

Employees value transparency in organizations." However, if done incorrectly, salary transparency can lead to pay compression, according to Lenaghan. Pay compression happens when there's little to no pay difference between new and tenured employees.

Why is lack of transparency unethical? ›

A lack of transparency can erode trust and lead to suspicions of unethical or illegal activity. In some cases, this can result in boycotts or other forms of protest against the business.

What states are doing salary transparency laws? ›

States that have enacted laws include: California, Colorado, Connecticut*, Maryland*, Nevada, New York, Rhode Island, and Washington.

What is the pay transparency law in the US? ›

Date effective: June 25, 2020. The Pay Equity Act prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from inquiring about an applicant's salary history. Those employers must provide the pay scale for a position if the applicant is offered a job.

Can you be fired for asking for a raise? ›

Yes, you can technically get fired for asking for a raise. There isn't usually a law preventing employers from firing you for this reason. However, it's very rare for companies to do this, as it's not a good business practice.

Can I sue my boss for talking behind my back? ›

If it's spoken, it's called slander. If someone defames you and damages your reputation, you can sue them.

What is the Fair Pay Act? ›

On January 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Act requires employers to redouble their efforts to ensure that their pay practices are non-discriminatory and to make certain that they keep the records needed to prove the fairness of pay decisions.

Why is talking about salary taboo? ›

The main reason is that your employer does not want you or your co-workers to compare salaries so that if one is underpaid, they ask for a raise with obvious evidence. If there is a salary imbalance, it can lead to mistrust: between you and your co-workers, and you and your employer.

Why you should keep your income private? ›

Revealing your networth and income to people could indeed ruin decades-long friendships and even strong family bonds. If you think you're home free from someone asking to borrow money from you because you don't make a lot, you're wrong. People in desperate circumstances would still deem you as being capable of lending.

Why do companies keep salaries secret? ›

Perhaps the most common reason employers choose to keep pay ranges a secret is so they have the advantage in pay negotiations. They have more power with the knowledge they have, and they can capitalize on their applicants' lack of knowledge and negotiating experience to skimp and save on money.

When did it become legal to talk about salary? ›

The National Labor Relations Act, also known as the "Wagner Act," became law in 1935. It's the basis for employees' rights to talk about wages with their coworkers.

What is a hidden paycheck? ›

All those tangible dollars or benefits that are paid on behalf of the employees are part of the hidden paycheck. A Human Resources Information System (HRIS) can tally up the numbers and uncover the hidden “pay” employees receive. But a hidden paycheck isn't for every business.

What payroll information is confidential? ›

Payroll includes a lot of confidential information. Your payroll records include both business and employee information. There are names, addresses, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, pay rates, benefits, deductions, and bank accounts.

What can manager not say to an employee? ›

You're always going on about that idea!”, or “You're always a couple days behind on that project!”, or “You never add to the agenda!” – any of these generalizations can put your team on the defensive and make them feel unsafe. Say this instead: Nothing.

When your boss is biased against you? ›

If your boss has a bias against you (whether it's conscious or not), it can color all her interactions with you—whether it's not giving you the same amount of coaching and development that she puts in with more favored team members, giving you less interesting or lower-profile assignments, or not recognizing what you' ...

What is backbiting in workplace? ›

In most cases, they are not cordial to accept the good performers of the organisation. So, being frustrated and jealous, they start negatively gossiping about those good performers in different ways and a disrespectful manner.

Should you tell your family your salary? ›

There's the stress of not measuring up to your parents' expectations for some people, while others may not be comfortable earning more money than their parents did. But it's likely a good idea to discuss your income with your parents, particularly when you're just starting out in the workplace.

How do you respond when someone asks about salary? ›

Consider giving a salary range, not a number

If a job post asks applicants to state their expected salary when applying for the position, then give a range — not a specific figure — you're comfortable with. Answers like “Negotiable” might work, but they can also make you look evasive.

Should you be telling people your salary? ›

"Yes, you can most certainly talk about your salary and what you make; however, my advice is to keep that info to people you know, love and trust," Swan adds. There are legit reasons to take the salary talk out of the shadows, especially in the workplace.

Should you be honest about your salary? ›

Lying about your current salary can derail your career growth and progression. But most of all, it's simply unprofessional. It is possible to get the pay you deserve by being honest and clearly indicating what is your expected salary during the interview stage.

Should you give first salary to parents? ›

Its not about the salary, it is about the respect you give them. Parents devote their whole life and money for the happiness and well being of their children with nothing in return. So, it's a mere gesture to give them respect and a feeling of pride.

Is salary secrecy illegal? ›

Pay secrecy is a workplace policy that bans employees from talking about their salaries and is illegal in most instances. The 1935 National Labor Relations Act gave private sector employees the right to discuss their salaries.

How do you politely not answer a salary question? ›

Another way not to discuss salary during an interview is by reassuring your interviewer that you're keenly interested in the job and are willing to negotiate. You can also tell your interviewer that you're open to considering the entire compensation package.

How do you deflect salary questions? ›

If you're asked for your salary expectations, you could deflect by saying “What do you usually pay someone in this position?” or “I'd like to learn more about the role before I set my salary expectations. I would hope that my salary would line up with market rates for similar positions in this area.”

What is the best way to negotiate salary? ›

Here are eight tips for how to negotiate a salary that can help you tactfully and confidently ask for what you want.
  1. Become familiar with industry salary trends. ...
  2. Build your case. ...
  3. Tell the truth. ...
  4. Factor in perks and benefits. ...
  5. Practice your delivery. ...
  6. Know when to wrap it up. ...
  7. Get everything in writing. ...
  8. Stay positive.
Apr 7, 2023


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