The best ways to start conversations about pay with colleagues

Two people talking over a desk at work.
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Talking about financial matters with your colleagues is often one of the biggest taboos in the workplace – it’s just not the done thing, and it’s often actively discouraged by companies and management.

Don’t listen to them, though – there are plenty of great reasons why you should have conversations about pay with your colleagues, and as the workforce gets younger these conversations are becoming more commonplace.

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There are plenty of boons to increased salary transparency, too: workers report fairer pay rates, more negotiating power and a closing gender pay gap when their workplace is more open about finances.

If you want to start those discussions at your workplace, look no further than our five crucial steps. Don’t fret if you need more salary guidance, either – we’ve got guides to determining the salary range you should ask for in an interview and the best way to figure out the salary you should use on your next job advert.

Establish trust – and don’t break it

If you’re going to talk to your co-workers about salaries then you need to pick people you can trust not to misuse that information. After all, you don’t want to reveal your pay details to someone who will just use that data to play into old, oppressive cultures of secrecy and office politics.

Once you’ve identified trusted colleagues who you think will be open to salary conversations, make sure that you’ve got a private venue to have that chat – you don’t want to be overheard.

Bear in mind that because you’re initiating these chats, you’ve got to be forthcoming and upfront with information. You should let your trusted colleagues know why you want to talk about salary information – it might be to improve everyone’s chances in salary negotiations or promote fairer pay across the business.

You should also volunteer your own pay information, because you won’t get very far asking other people if you won’t come forward with your own numbers. Consider talking about salary ranges instead of exact figures to placate people who don’t feel comfortable with giving specific numbers.

Ask people if they’d be open to a conversation about salaries before you start your conversations, and don’t break trust after you’ve established it – that’s a one-way ticket to creating workplace friction. And if people don’t want to discuss their finances, respect that boundary.

Do your research

There are a few key areas where you should conduct some careful research before you start approaching colleagues to chat about salaries.

Consult your contract, because there may be fine print about whether discussions about salaries are even allowed in the workplace. These non-disclosure agreements are illegal in many countries, but rules can differ depending on your location or job status – you may get fewer protections if you’re a contractor, for instance.

Bear in mind, too, that you can still talk about your salary even if you’ve got those clauses in your contract. That’s a risk that everyone will have to weigh up individually, and remember to pick trusted colleagues if you do decide to engage despite what the fine-print may say.

Once you’ve established your contractual situation, head online. If you’re going to talk about salaries, then knowledge is power. You should use job sites such as Glassdoor and LinkedIn to find out what people in similar jobs tend to earn across the wider industry so you’ve got a firmer idea if your salary is appropriate. If you do that first, then you’ve got more leverage when talking with colleagues and more negotiating power when meeting with management.

Don’t just stick to your workplace

It’s great to talk about salary with your colleagues, but it can be valuable to have those conversations beyond the office, too.

Talk to trusted contacts within your wider industry – and even with people who do your job in different industries – and you’ll be able to gauge what kinds of salaries people are earning in other companies. That information chat could be helpful when it comes to finding out if you’re underpaid when compared to your peers.

Keep your notes safe

It’s only natural to want to keep notes and records when you’re dealing with important financial information. And while that’s generally good advice, it’s critical that you keep sensitive data safe.

For some people the best method may be keeping the vital statistics in your phone’s note-taking app, or for others it could be an encrypted file on your laptop. You may even want to use a sheet of paper you keep safe at home.

You’ll probably find that those notes are important later in your professional life. You won’t get very far with salary negotiations or conversations about pay with colleagues if you can’t remember what you’ve discussed in the past, and you can use this data as evidence when you’re arguing with management about any potential pay rises.

Keep it professional

If you reach a point where you’ve talked about salary information with your colleagues and you’ve determined that you’re due a pay rise, you may be tempted to march into your manager’s office and start making demands – but that’s not the best way to achieve your goals.

Instead, schedule a formal meeting with your boss so you’ve got time to collect your thoughts and prepare evidence. You shouldn’t just show up with data that suggests that other people earn more than you – partner those numbers with evidence that you’re great at your job and you deserve more cash so you can make a stronger case for yourself.

Remember that any meeting like this is the start of a negotiation, and you may have to meet management half-way – and that you may also have to wait for your boss to go to their boss to get firmer answers on what is possible financially.

If you take a professional, mature approach throughout this whole process – from talking to your colleagues and doing your research to dealing with management – then you’ll have better results when it comes to talking about pay, earning trust from co-workers and increasing your salary.

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Mike has worked as a technology journalist for more than a decade and has written for most of the UK’s big technology titles alongside numerous global outlets. He loves PCs, laptops and any new hardware, and covers everything from the latest business trends to high-end gaming gear.