No, I Don’t Want To Know How Much You Make

My blog surfing habits are a bit weird. Most people probably make use of readers and subscriptions etc to keep up with their favourite blogs. I still prefer to read off the blog directly, and give some traffic support in the process of doing so. I also don’t visit the same blogs everyday, so I tend to accumulate unread posts at a certain blog and clear them off in one reading.

What I am trying to say with that is that due to my reading habits, I am often late to the comment party.  So please forgive me if I write commentaries on or link to posts that are older. I don’t think it makes my opinions any less valid for all that. J

My most recent foray in Money After Graduation unearthed a guest post by Erika of From Shopping to Saving , in which she discusses her new dislike for sharing income information between colleagues.

Erika may have come to the realization that sharing of salary information between people who work in the same office does not yield positive results, but there are still many people out there who believe that there should be better transparency between colleagues when it comes to such things.  I wonder why. Is it because these people have a more optimistic view of human nature than I?

Most people compare. And most people tend to base their happiness level on the results of comparison. It doesn’t matter if I am at the bottom of the heap, if my place in the heap is still higher than all my friends. It doesn’t matter if I am in the top 1% of whatever, if I belong to the bottom 1% of that top slice; I am still unhappy. Isn’t this the basic principle of the Jones’s?

True comparisons can only be made when the full picture is known. As such, if there is to be transparency on salaries, there should also be transparency on work scope and performance. I have heard any number of stories in my company about subordinates going up to their bosses demanding a raise because so-and-so was getting this much, and they were doing the same job. Almost every one of them walked away in silence after the bosses elaborated on exactly how much extra work and effort the other party had put in, but had been unknown to the general public for various reasons. When people share salaries, do they also share EXACTLY the work that they do?

And then how do you define performance? Just showing up? Number of sales for the company? What if I have high output but make a lot of mistakes? How does that compare to my colleague who has a much lower output but does a virtually perfect job? How about a colleague who is unable to produce any output because he spends all his time helping and training more junior colleagues? Should he be penalized?

What about intangibles? Imagine a shop owner had two employees who are paid above market rates for what they do. One is a handsome dude, who does nothing much around the shop, but keeps the customers coming in droves just to gawk at him, or to interact with him. The other is a rather homely chap who works hard stocking shelves, cashiering etc. Can you say with certainty whether one or the other is more valuable to their employer? I certainly can’t. But the hardworking chap is going to feel hard done by if he knows that they are being paid the same if he doesn’t stop to consider the intangible value that his colleague has to his employer. He may even be moved to leave this job for a lower paying one just to feel better. Who has the sharing of salary helped in this case?

Let’s assume everyone knows the reasons why everyone is getting what they are getting. There will also always be the big egos who feel that they are performing the best regardless of reality. Sharing of salary information is never a good idea for these people.

Anecdote: We had an assistant engineer, A, who believed that he was the smartest and highest performing guy of the lot. He found out that another assistant engineer in the team, B received a much higher annual raise and bonus then he did. B was also due to be promoted to engineer level soon. A asked for the same raise but was turned down and told exactly the reasons and given examples why B was so much better. Did A believe us?

Unfortunately not. He came up with his own idea that B had been given the higher raise and promotion because he had recently gotten his Bachelors. So A took two years off work, and paid tens of thousands of dollars to get his Bachelors from a prominent UK University. A came back to work last year. Today, he is still an assistant engineer getting the same pay. It would have been much better for him never to have known what his colleague was making in the first place.

As a manager, I am firmly against the sharing of salary information between colleagues. Comparison leads to unhappiness – the higher paid are made to feel guilty, while the lower paid seethes with the perceived unfairness of it all. Which in turn leads to an unmanageable team, and then everyone suffers.

A last anecdote. Two new engineers with the same qualifications in our company discussed their salaries with each other, and found that one was paid $100 a month more than the other. The lower paid guy took the information to HR and asked for a raise. HR apologised and said there had been a mistake in the contracts. They proceeded to take $100 off the higher paid engineer’s monthly salary, thereby making them equal.

Oh, they are still friends, though.

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2 comments on “No, I Don’t Want To Know How Much You Make

  1. Revanche says:

    I both agree and disagree for the same reasons 🙂

    I did far more work than some of my colleagues who held higher degrees than I did and their value to the office in terms of tangible work was less because I supervised and advised their work. When I negotiated for a significant raise, I found out that the bosses went and gave them raises too, though I didn’t know how much. I was furious that I had to do all the work in the office, including that of my boss’s (an independent consultant confirmed this after an audit), and do the hard work of a negotiation by myself, only to reward everyone. I am not so egalitarian as to want to give away all the benefits of my hard work as that! Particularly when they were not working nearly as hard nor were as motivated.

    So as far as happiness goes, it was a pain knowing, but it was useful to me to know that that was the kind of people I was dealing with.

    From a manager’s POV, yes, not everyone easily understands the tangible and intangible factors that go into evaluating their salaries but I also take the responsibility of communicating to them the things they need to do to improve to deserve a raise.

    They have to put in that work and the *right* work, from that point. Certainly it’s not going to be easy for everyone to do what’s needed to get to a certain point and I try to make it as much of a meritocracy as possible.

    BUT there’s always a point at which they need to understand that realistically, you have to make your opportunity and you can’t fabricate nothing out of thin air if there’s not room in the organization to go beyond what’s there. So if you can’t accept the realities of what you have in front of you and work with it, then sometimes, leaving is what’s best. It’s not just your shortcomings but the limits of the headroom available. Your perceptions as an employee and the perceptions of management as to what is valuable have to jive in order to promote your career growth.

  2. Miss JJ says:

    I confess to being lucky so far. I have never in my life asked for anything at work. My bosses have always been quick to (maybe over-)reward me for my work. I’ve mainly viewed the results of salary sharing from a third party, and mainly manager’s point of view, hence my perspective.I have also mostly been the high-earner amongst my colleagues, hence I normally keep quiet for fear of making someone unhappy.

    I can see where you are coming from though. In fact, I am facing similar issues and having similar conflicts, since my bosses decided to hire PhDs fresh from school. These guys sure are asking a lot and there is a chance they may be paid equal or more than myself with less initial contribution. However, our reactions are very different.I wished that I didn’t have to know how much they were asking for, because it caused a lot of unhappiness that I didn’t need to face. I was otherwise very content and I didn’t want to go to the trouble of asking for more, or jeopardising my current situation.

    I guess I am a very escapist, cowardly sort of person….

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