Kiersten Post isn’t afraid to talk about money. She chats with friends about buying a house and budgeting for vacations. She shares her personal finance goals with family members.
And much to her parents’ surprise, she even discloses her salary. Regularly.
Post, 29, estimates that she’s told more than 30 people how much money she makes since starting her career in 2014, most recently as a recruiter for a tech company in Tampa Bay, Florida. Many of the people she tells are her co-workers. More often than not, they share with her, too.
“They were really shocked that I would have those conversations,” Post says, referring to her parents. “They didn’t think it was appropriate. They didn’t think it was a kind thing to do. I always came back and said, ‘How else am I supposed to know that I’m being paid fairly if I don’t ask?’”
Attitudes are changing
Post is among a growing share of younger workers to break those workplace taboos and discuss how much they’re earning with their networks. Nearly 42% of Generation Z workers (ages 18-25) and 40% of millennials (ages 26-41) have shared their salary information with a co-worker or other professional contact, compared with 31% of Gen Xers (ages 42-57) and 19% of baby boomers (ages 58-76), according to a nationwide Bankrate survey from March.
Experts attribute that openness to broader generational shifts regarding work and money. Early in their careers, catastrophic downturns shaped their perceptions — from the Great Recession of 2007-09 to the coronavirus crisis. Those events also dented workers’ earnings and limited their job prospects, keeping them from buying homes as their student loan debt metastasized.
Millennials, for instance, held 6.4% of the nation’s wealth through the fourth quarter of 2021, despite making up the largest share of the workforce, according to Federal Reserve household wealth data. When baby boomers were around the same age in 1990, they controlled more than 3.4 times that amount (22%).
Throughout most of the recovery from the Great Recession, wage growth remained stagnant, and millennials learned that their biggest pay gains would come from job-hopping, parting from their older predecessors.
And now, Generation Z is starting to enter the workforce at a time when inflation is at a 40-year high, which is taking a significant bite out of all generations’ paychecks.
All of those factors have only exacerbated the longer-run wage disparities that have kept workers behind for generations, such as the racial and gender pay gap. More than half (or 57%) of millennials said they felt underpaid compared to peers with the same work experience and qualifications, along with 45% of Gen Zers, Bankrate’s poll also found.
“Across the board, salary transparency does help eliminate those asymmetric information problems that can contribute to the gender wage gap, racial wage issues and the labor market. At the end of the day, we do want a labor market that is fair and equitable for everybody,” says Ann Elizabeth Konkel, economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab.
Labor economists say younger workers might feel more comfortable being open from growing up with social media, and they’re more likely to forge closer friendships with their co-workers.
In a previous position, Post once approached a more senior-level co-worker after getting a hunch that she didn’t ask for enough money. “I didn’t want to wait two years to find out that I was making less than everyone else,” she says. But after sharing her salary and bonus potential, she learned that she was being fairly compensated — but another co-worker wasn’t.
“She was shocked because a team leader had the same bonus potential as me,” Post says. “It got the wheels spinning about asking for more in the next review.”
Workers also now have more bargaining power than ever to hunt for the pay or position they want. Employers have had a near record number of job openings for 13 straight months, and about 1.8 positions per every jobless worker are open, according to the latest data from the Department of Labor.
“As long as the unemployment rate remains as low, workers will maintain a high level of job security,” says Mark Hamrick, Bankrate senior economic analyst and Washington bureau chief. “And with that, they have a high degree of confidence that they can find work more to their liking. This provides an opportunity for better work-life balance and higher pay, which should translate to progress with their personal finances.”
Still, experts say there’s a right time and place to bring up a salary conversation, and workers shouldn’t feel like the responsibility to achieve equal pay falls on them.
Here’s what to know about bringing up your salary with a co-worker, including how to know when it’s time to walk away.
1. Only discuss salaries with co-workers who feel comfortable, and do it outside of work
By law, employees can discuss their pay with co-workers, according to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Yet, some companies still find ways to fire employees for discussing pay by making them sign nondisclosure agreements, according to Katie Donovan, equal pay expert and founder of the consultancy firm Equal Pay Negotiations. Not to mention, some workers just might not feel comfortable.
If you feel anxious, try chatting with a co-worker who you already have a relationship with and only bring up your pay if career or personal finance-related topics come up in conversation. Consider also approaching the subject outside of work hours.
The sooner in your career you bring up those conversations, the quicker you might be able to catch wage gaps. For example, a woman starting her full-time career today would miss out on $417,400 over the course of a 40-year career based on current disparities, according to a 2022 analysis from the National Women’s Law Center.
“You’re always going to have people who are competitive or don’t want to be transparent. Maybe they know they’re paid better than they should be,” says Nicole Palidwor, a certified career coach with Ama La Vida. “But encouraging millennials and Gen Z to begin having those conversations early in their career will be helpful.”
That conversation shouldn’t just be left up to women or individuals of color. Experts say white men have a role in the conversation too since they’re statistically and historically the highest paid demographic.
“Go find the tallest, whitest dude,” Donovan says. “To be paid equitably, you want to earn what white men are earning. The median of everyone is less than the median of white men.”
2. Do outside research
There are limitations to talking only with co-workers. Perhaps you and your co-worker are earning comparative salaries, but your company is also paying less than the industry standard. That’s why it’s important to research what workers with similar experience make in your career field and region.
You might be “on point with your co-worker down the hallway, but a couple years later if you switch jobs, you might be like, ‘Wow, we were all underpaid, and none of us knew it,’” Konkel says.
Consider looking at salary data from websites such as Glassdoor or PayScale and chatting with recruiters, trade organizations, unions and other pay experts that represent your industry.
Consider asking those experts, “Someone with ‘X’ years of experience, what would you offer that person?” Konkel says.
3. Know the limitations of data sources
Research is easier said than done. Workers have no way of verifying whether self-reported salary data on websites is accurate, and most of the time they aren’t, Donovan points out. Not to mention, salary information is likely already incorporating significant wage gaps because it includes everyone in the data, even the historically underpaid workers, she adds.
Acknowledging those limitations is important for workers tracking down their pay — and the companies that hope to set wages fairly.
“The way the system is set up, no one truly can ever know for sure that they’re paid fairly,” Donovan says. She suggests always aiming for the high end of any salary range, with a good rule of thumb being the 75th wage percentile of your specific job and industry. “No matter what the job, shoot for the high end, and settle for what you’re willing to settle for.”
4. Know when to negotiate and when to walk away
If you suspect that you’re underpaid, approach both your current and potential employers at the negotiating table with clear ways that you brought value to your team and company. Regardless of whether you really want to leave your position, you might be better off if you have a new offer.
“Your goal should be to get two offers when you look for a job,” Donovan says. “That gives you the power to actually make a decision instead of being kept with what you’re given. And that’s when you have power in the negotiating process. You can actually truly say no and truly walk away, and then they’ll truly give you the highest offer they have available.”
When you hunt for higher pay, be careful about disclosing a specific salary that you’re seeking. Also avoid divulging your salary history — information that some states, including Colorado, are banning because it can perpetuate wage gaps — and don’t lock yourself into a lower salary than you could get by asking for a specific number.
“If the employer says it’s going to pay $50,000, that becomes the floor,” Donovan says. “If I say I’m looking for $50,000, that just became the ceiling. That’s why employers want you to say what you’re considering.”
5. Know it’s a societal problem — not a you problem
While talking about your salary can arm you with more knowledge, it doesn’t erase the fact that companies are still underpaying workers, whether they realize it or not.
Achieving pay equity requires more than just talking about salaries with co-workers but also putting pressure on companies to be transparent with their pay scales and salary ranges.
Possible remedies could include defining what employees need to do to get to the next level with their salary, how pay raises are calculated and how salaries differ for workers in different regions of the country. Companies that are hoping to make the most significant change should avoid basing their salary offerings on the median in the market because of its inherent inequalities, Donovan says.