Are you avoiding every single salary discussion?

Usually apart from the necessity of physical exercises that didn’t seem so critical in our 20s and the silent torture caused by Hollywood celebrities on never-ageing antioxidants ( or whatever else Richard Gere is eating) growing up has been empowering. Few adults want to go back to being reprimanded by professors, parents and young bosses. It’s refreshing to stand ground and talk about topics out of professional and personal experiences and not be blocked by a young person’s unsure dilemma.

Salary discussions are taboo

And yet, there are topics we often don’t acknowledge and avoid like plague. A lot of these have something to do with our careers, specifically the money we make, and how we feel about it. It seems like salary discussions between co-workers tend to get murkier as the levels go up.

After all, we all remember discussing our first internship salaries in great details with friends, neighbours, mom and everyone on the football field. I was very keen on finding out why we avoid all these salary discussions as grown-ups. It started with finding the truth in the theory itself.

Here are some data points that came along to prove that salary is indeed an avoidance topic for most senior professionals. I started internally and talked to Experteer’s head of HR, Martin Wagner. The salary awkwardness topic deserved a full-fledged Bitstrip of its own along with a coffee break.

The next step was to see if this was just a single HR Head’s view or a broader trend. I decided to take help from our technology team, to see what the data tells us. As you’re aware Experteer has thousands of new jobs that get posted on our platform every week.

We decided to see the big data trends that this sample was indicating in terms of transparency of salaries. The data indicates that the hypothesis is indeed true. It seems that the higher up we get onto the salary scale, the more hush-hush it gets from the recruiters and headhunters. They do not want to reveal the salaries to candidates even on a discreet platform like ours. We of course give you ‘Experteer salary benchmarks’ but these are average numbers and may have a bit of variation from the actual salary being offered for the position.

Transparency in Salary at senior levels

Apart from the recruiter’s apparent push to be rather non-transparent about salaries for senior level professionals, another test was really to see whether co-workers feel the same awkwardness. One could say that recruiters had a reason for being non-transparent: to have better balance in salary negotiations and to avoid uncomfortable team discussions and confrontation.

However, we couldn’t say the same for employees themselves. What was holding us up in sharing salary details with other senior professionals? Again, this was not a standalone personal hypothesis, but a view shared by professional agencies working with senior professionals.

Pam Meyer-Bothling working for ‘People and projects’, a Stuttgart based agency that focuses on communication, intercultural working and other soft skills for senior professionals, confirmed it:

We are a small group of trainers working on soft skills in an international context in Germany. With our corporate clients we sometimes do an activity where we ask people, who often know each other, to talk in small groups about their salaries. This often produces visible discomfort among the participants as evidenced by shuffling, avoidance of eye contact and pauses before speaking. The very question about salary can be seen in Germany as impudent or presumptuous. Since the point of this activity is to explore how to deal with questions you are uncomfortable with, or how to approach a topic you know your partner is not happy to talk about, we usually feel we have chosen the right subject.

Meanwhile, coming back to our HR Head Martin, together over coffee, we tried to think through the key reasons on why salary is such a taboo topic for most senior professionals. We came across several reasons why it is so hard:

  • It’s much too personal and people have a strong relationship with money. It is not something to discuss out in the open and should depend on the person’s discretion.
  • You’d much rather be ignorant than be frustrated if you are earning lesser. Also if you’re earning more, you may create discomfort or an air of envy between people. It could be demotivating at many levels and affect relationships
  • Salary gaps are higher and you’re no longer at the same levels that you were as a junior professional where you could compare easily. Different industries, functional areas and locations change the parameters quite strongly
  • Salaries are unfair: academics with PhDs might earn far lesser than an automotive engineer with fewer school years. Who is to say how fair that is? Many of us wonder about the fairness of the whole system
  • Why should you care and compare: It seemed to be a non-confrontational response, but we even thought around, why people need to talk about salaries in the first place. That’s an easy out I think!

The moot point really was that it is indeed a difficult topic, the non-transparency is a personal preference, but in my perspective there are some pitfalls to avoid here. The biggest is that you may be in a lump and not be aware of it. Who is to say you’re making the best you could, or simply put that you are settling for too less!

Even if it is hard to talk about it, perhaps many of us already do use, or need to use tools that can help (anonymously even). I recommend using the salary calculator here. It may make you feel better; if not at least you can go out there and do something about it!

“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished”- Dan Gilbert



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