In the Sony hack in 2014, leaked emails publicly put a spotlight on the wage gap between male and female movie stars.
Actress Jennifer Lawrence had no idea that she was making less than her male co-stars in "American Hustle" until that information was leaked. She was, understandably, pretty ticked off.
Co-star Bradley Cooper was also upset. As a result, he said he would start revealing his salary information to female co-stars to help with their contract negotiations.
Bradley Cooper pledging to reveal his salary to colleagues wasn’t just unusual because he’s a big-time celeb — it was unusual because Americans, quite frankly, hate talking about their salaries.
In the absence of leaked emails, we often have no idea how much our peers are making.
Think about it: Do you know how much money your friends make? What about your coworkers? Your parents? Your dog? (OK, your dog probably isn't making anything.)
Why are we so hesitant to discuss how much money we make?
Sharing salary information can be nerve-wracking — and for good reason.
Unspoken societal rules make it uncomfortable to talk openly about the subject, and some companies even have explicit policies against employees discussing wage information. It’s illegal for federal contractors to prohibit employee disclosure of compensation, but many companies (especially those in the private sector) do their best to discourage the dialogue anyway.
According to a Marist Poll, over 70% of adults in the U.S. don’t think private companies should be required to publish employee salary information internally or externally. The same poll showed that 66% of people want to keep their own salary info private.
Clearly, the whole topic is incredibly taboo.
Plus, there’s the concern that salary discussions will lead to nothing but resentment among employees who find out they’re earning less — or awkward feelings among those earning the most.
The poll above states that 58% of Americans think making salaries public "would cause conflict between employees rather than increasing fairness of pay within the company." After all, who wants to admit to their own hardworking friend that they’re paid a different amount, especially if they're working same job?
Despite the taboo, salary transparency has huge potential to protect against unfair wage discrepancies.
Think about it this way: If you find out you’re making less than a coworker and decide to talk to management about it, your boss has a couple of options. Yes, they could give you a raise (yay!), but they could also simply explain why you’re making less and give you a clear idea of what you would need to do to earn a raise (also yay!).
As long as there are strong, valid reasons for the wage discrepancy, the company has nothing to fear. As NPR puts it, "[salary] transparency is a defense against the games that bad bosses can play." What kind of games might that be? Ones that involve basing salaries and bonuses on factors like an employee’s race or gender.
We may never know exactly why Jennifer Lawrence made so much less than her male co-stars in "American Hustle," but it’s not outrageous to assume the gap had something to do with her gender. What would the stars' salaries have looked like if Sony had an obligation to disclose them before the film was made?
Being open about salaries can also help with negotiating, budgeting, and even employee satisfaction.
That’s right. A PayScale survey of 71,000 employees found that “one of the top predictors of employee sentiment is a company's ability to communicate clearly about pay.” Even among employees who know they’re underpaid, 82% still feel "satisfied with their work" if the employer is honest about the reasons for that smaller paycheck.
And for those who are underpaid, knowing what your coworkers are making is a great starting point for negotiating your own compensation up to a fair place.
Whatever your number is, you can choose to keep it a total secret or shout it from the rooftops — it’s your call.
But the more conversations we have about why we have certain money norms, the easier it is for us all to determine which ones make sense and which ones may be causing us to sell ourselves short. And the better off we'll all be — financially and otherwise.