Should you ever share your software salary?


Should you ever talk about your salary with coworkers?

  • If you’re at the beginning of your career, then feel free. You’re not likely to threaten anyone.
  • If you’re an outstanding performer, senior, or you’ve just been around for awhile, don’t share your salary with anyone.

People have been asking me about the Googler who started an internal salary spreadsheet and then reported it using a series of Tweets. 

As of the time of this writing, it has 700 points on Hacker News.

Predictably, the woman’s manager wasn’t pleased.

Given that I write articles about software salaries, here are my 2 cents:

I think not talking about money is silly. In the US, it comes from America’s puritanical roots where money was somehow considered evil or immoral, so most people believe it’s impolite to talk about how much they make.

Sometimes, it’s common sense to not tell other people. You don’t want to turn yourself into a target, whether it be of litigation, theft, or competition in the marketplace.

Unfortunately, this culture gives companies huge bargaining power against us. You should always negotiate, and one of the easiest ways to negotiate is if you know the general range of salaries for a given position within a company. The problem is that the company typically won’t give that information away easily.

I interviewed at a place a couple of years ago, and when I asked about the average range of salaries of software engineers, the recruiter balked. She was actually offended, as if I asked something that nobody had ever asked before. Given that most people don’t negotiate, this didn’t surprise me.

Needless to say, my lack of information put me at a severe disadvantage. You can estimate your salary from Glassdoor or by looking at similar positions in your area, but ultimately you’re left with valuing yourself, and that’s never easy to do.

If we all knew each other’s salaries, this wouldn’t be an issue. No company could give you an underhanded salary because it would be so blatantly obvious for you to see that you were getting screwed. Because of that, most companies would pay better.

This all comes nicely to the concept of a union, although traditionally software engineers have been opposed to them.

I subscribe to the opposition. Being in tech, we like to believe that our pay is commensurate with talent, ability, and effort. We believe we’re living in a meritocracy, even if it’s sometimes far from the truth.

Plus, I’ve seen what can happen when you divulge your salary. I had a friend at my last company, who I had known for 6 months. The friendship was nothing serious, we’d occasionally grab a beer after work, and we’d chat at work a fair amount.

One time, our salaries came up. I made the mistake of telling him mine, and I found out I made 30% more than he did. Granted, I was more senior, but I then found myself in the awkward situation of apologizing for my pay. I said “well this happened in my career, and then this” trying to lead him to believe that he wasn’t worse than me, I had just gotten “lucky.”

It didn’t work. For the next couple of weeks I had to put up with cringe worthy jokes hurled in my direction – the sort of thing where you know the other person is only half kidding.

So, sharing your salary can be toxic. If you’re a high performer, and you’re sitting at the top of the income bracket for your field, you probably shouldn’t say anything when coworkers talk about salaries. You’ll just breed resentment and jealousy. I don’t care how friendly you are with your coworkers, those friendships may come to a screeching halt when they find out that you make twice as much as they do.

And if you’re reading this blog, my guess is your goal is to make twice as much as they do.

In the case of the Google woman, here are my thoughts:

Google has some odd pay practices, or at least they did when I worked there, and they probably still do. Each engineering position has a series of levels, like most companies. Each level has a pay band, and sometimes those pay bands can be extremely large.

Your manager has (or at least used to have) a lot of discretion over your bonus and stock grants, as well as yearly salary raises. So if you got along with your manager very well, and he or she thought you were doing great work, you could easily wind up getting a big raise at the end of the year, even without getting promoted.

Promotions had little to do with your manager, since you just sent your packet off to a promotion committee and then waited for a reply. Your manager had input, but that input was marginalized for the sake of the committee.

Because of this system, I found myself not getting promoted a couple of times, but I still wound up with large raises from my bosses.

Eventually, I was making more than folks in my organization who were one or two levels higher than me.

This was not that unusual. I knew of a bunch of instances of this happening.

From an employee’s perspective, it can be extremely frustrating. On the one hand, your manager and director are telling you you’re doing great work, but then the promotion committee says you suck. You also have to contend with the awkwardness of being a lower level than your peers, but making more at the same time. It would be easier if the company would just promote you.

People respond to clear goals and clear incentives, which is why the military has always kept all pay levels open and transparent. Some modern companies like Buffer have followed suit, but these are few and far between.

But I understand why companies like Google do this. If everyone knew how much everyone else made, it would benefit the low and average performers to the detriment of the high and exceptional performers.

Where’s the incentive to be a high performer if you know you’re stuck within a given pay band?

Google’s head of HR admitted this recently. They pay unfairly on purpose. Sometimes the bureaucracy of a company prevents it from rewarding its high performers, and because the business may hinge on the performance of those people, it makes sense to keep them happy.

So when I read about the woman starting the internal salary spreadsheet, I thought the whole thing was kind of silly.

Google already admitted that they pay unfairly, but somehow it was still news when everyone found out that they actually do what they said?

Have you ever run into trouble because you shared your salary?

Photo Credit: Tambako The Jaguar