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Money should be transparent, not invisible

1 Dec
… and other nice ideas.

How do you know that your employer is paying you fairly? Please, take a minute to ponder this question. Go on, think about it.

Maybe you’re in a trade union, and your union negotiates set payscales and annual raises for you during meetings that are held publicly. Or maybe you work for a very large public corporation that determines comporatios using a fancy algorhthym (making sure to adjust down by ~20 percent for females, people of color, and people with disabilities, naturally). But if you’re anything like the vast majority of workers in the United States, the amount you are paid for the work that you do is determined through a process that is both opaque and sinister.

Look! It’s a plane! It’s a bird!
It’s a bell curve!

This process is so opaque, in fact, that you may need to use a web site like salary.com to find out if you are even in the ballpark of what others in your field are paid. You don’t know what your colleagues are paid, and what’s more, you can be punished if you ask – professionally and socially. What’s worse, your colleague can be fired if he or she has the audacity to answer you truthfully.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: Your employers have a vested interested in keeping you as in-the-dark as possible as to what’s a fair rate for the work you do. A well-informed employee is difficult to manipulate, and certainly difficult to underpay. Fortune, in this case, favors those with the power to keep secrets. If Susan learns that Bob is paid $15,000 more per year than she is to do the same work, it suddenly becomes very difficult to motivate Susan to work hard without shelling out some cash. And so in most HR handbooks in the US, you’ll find a clause that prohibits discussing compensation packages with coworkers.

Are you being paid in salted legumes?

Meanwhile, corporations are blithely exercising their right to investigate employees’ (and even potential employees’) salary history. Many will ask for your compensation history as part of the job application process. Those that don’t can demand to see last year’s W-2s. But ask how much the last person in the position you’re applying for made, and suddenly you’re on thin ice. Ask your supervisor his or her salary, and you’re in hot water. Try it with a colleague, and you’re a pariah.

When it comes to salaries, corporations and society in general are ignoring a golden rule: Open and honest discourse, along with the free flow of information, is good. Sure, the purging process can get ugly (WikiLeaks. Watergate. Whatever.), but secrecy solves nothing.

It’s time for us to admit that it’s not always hard work or talent or creativity that lands employees raises and promotions. Often, it can be completely random, or informed by nepotism, or malice. On the whole, employers simply pay people as little as they think they can get away with – rewarding cocky employees or savvy negotiators while punishing more quietly effective ones. 

I’m not advocating the violent overthrow of the government here, but I am advocating something that will probably shock people around you. Just try following these simple steps next time you’re at a cocktail party:

“OMG, ferserious you guys,
that crazy chick so totally just asked
 me how much I make a year.”

1. Ask someone point-blank how much money they make.
2. Watch them sputter in shock.
3. Observe as other guests within earshot shoot you nasty looks.
4. Ask again.
5. Wait for someone to try to take your keys away, because clearly you are too drunk to drive home.

It’s funny, kind of. But mostly it’s just sick and twisted. We can easily find ourselves in deep conversation about the things that surround money – the type of cars people drive, the neighborhoods our houses are in, the schools we send our bratlings to. But the minute you ask someone to put a concrete figure on exactly what it is that enables their lifestyle, bit it Bimmer or Wheelbarrow, you’re an antisocial little freak.

So join me in my awkwardly-talking-about-money-revolution. Follow the five steps above, and please, let me know how it goes.

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