Show me the money
By ROBYN E. BLUMNER
Published July 10, 2005
Money makes the world go around, sang the Emcee of the Kit Kat Club in the musical Cabaret. In that dodgy place where everything could be had for a price, the crass power of money was openly celebrated. It was a spectacle as risque as the staged sex.
Americans are of two minds when it comes to money. We grant fame to those who have it - Donald Trump, the Hiltons et al. - and seek it for ourselves, but we also consider specific discussions of earnings taboo in polite company. Money is at the core of our lives in so many ways, influencing how we live, what careers we choose, even how many children, if any, we have. But it is a subject we painstakingly avoid.
As far as I can tell, one's salary and other personal financial matters are about the only touchy subjects left. We are well past those Mrs. Astor days when it was verboten to offer up opinions on politics or religion; and sex is just about our favorite subject - no detail is considered too personal. But even some spouses are kept unaware of each other's financial situation. For some reason society considers it bad form to go into specifics. What's the story here?
First, I think, there is the embarrassment factor. We are all shamed by what we make. Some of us because it is so much. (Is any executive who didn't invent some must-have necessity or start a company himself really worth millions of dollars a year?) But many more of us are uncomfortable because we make so little. We look around and think to ourselves that just about everyone else must be making gobs more money since they seem able to afford airplane-hangar-size homes with kitchens that look like Tuscan villas and enjoy luxury vacations to places where the dollar has fallen like a lead zeppelin. (Note to self: When pondering one's relative lack of prosperity it is perhaps best not to be thumbing through the lastest Architectural Digest.) Comparisons communicate one thing rather clearly: We are major losers in the rat race called making a living, and winning the lottery is our only strategic plan for catching up.
Second, employers have conspired to make salary information a "for your eyes only" affair. Nothing in a company is as big a decoder-ring secret than what the guy in the next cubicle is making.
Employees freely talk to each other about every other aspect of their jobs, just not salaries. It is about the only secret left. Nearly everyone's Social Security number can be obtained from the Internet for a small fee. Through an information broker we can find out what magazines our co-workers subscribe to, what churches they attend or whether they have a membership in the local vampire support group. We even know who Deep Throat is, but not what Watercooler Joe is pulling down.
By not readily sharing that information, America's employees are handicapping themselves and holding down their own pay. Information is power, as the saying goes. Still, we just don't want to know, or maybe more precisely, we don't want others to know.
Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career coach in Wilmette, Ill., who wrote a book on salary strategies, says it's a cultural thing: "We associate you as a person with how much money you make." She says we've bought into the American myth that the cream always rises to the top. The competitive baby boomers particularly don't want to be reminded in stark numerical terms that they are not all that, er, creamy.
Eve Tahmincioglu, a former colleague and a national business writer, puts more of the onus on management. She says the excessive secrecy surrounding salaries "is a taboo created by the people at the top." It is a way to keep salary differences (that may or may not be based on merit, experience, longevity or other valid factors) from making workers uncomfortable because they are paid more or angry because they are paid less.
But think of the leverage employees are giving up by keeping mum. Just as it is far cannier to walk into a car dealership after having obtained Consumer Reports' exhaustive financial analysis of what your old car is worth and what the car you want to buy costs the dealer, so too is it better to know the salaries of those with whom you work. How else can you determine what you are worth and whether you are being paid fairly?
Salary information used to be far more open. In the days when a large chunk of the work force was unionized, specific pay for various jobs was part of a negotiated agreement. Everyone was in it together. Now, though, when companies have figured out how to make a 21-year-old behind the counter in a paper hat "management," everyone's out for themselves.
For the betterment of us all, I think this is one secret we should start giving up. Okay? But I'm not going first.
[Last modified July 8, 2005, 17:45:03]
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