Discussing money, as it is often said, is the last taboo. But that taboo, especially against revealing what we earn, has been slowly eroding. The question is, will that make for a happier or more miserable workplace?

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Next time you’re lunching with your colleagues, try this: Ask everyone their salary. You might end up dining alone in the future.

Discussing money, as it is often said, is the last taboo. But that taboo, especially against revealing what we earn, has been slowly eroding. The question is, will that make for a happier or more miserable workplace?

Concerns about pay transparency have been around for decades, but the issue is gaining momentum. One reason is a push at the federal level. President Barack Obama has long made equal pay one of his priorities; he recently signed several executive orders regarding pay equity and transparency.

On a broader level, the Internet — with sites that compare salaries, like Glassdoor.com and Payscale.com — and the changing nature of the workforce mean long-held assumptions about what is private and what is not are disappearing.

“In today’s world, generally speaking, younger workers share more of their lives publicly,” says Debra Friedman, a lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law. “Older workers would consider it private and impolite to ask co-workers what they are being paid.”

But knowing a general range of pay, and more exactly what the guy sitting next to you makes, is a big difference. After a lawsuit to make California state employee pay more public, The Sacramento Bee created an online database of state workers’ salaries.

To see how this affected workers, David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues surveyed about 6,400 University of California employees and professors. One group was asked general questions about pay equity; the other was asked the same questions, but a line was added mentioning the online database.

“What we found is that people who were told about the website were much more likely to use it, more likely to believe their wages were set unfairly and more likely to say they plan to look for another job,” Card says.

As is human nature, those who made more than their co-workers were not noticeably happier, he said, but those below the average were much unhappier.

So does this mean being too open about pay is a bad thing? Not necessarily, Card says.

“In the long run, the effects of pay disclosure aren’t negative,” he says. “But there is a cost.”

‘Candidness is crucial’

Edward Lawler, a professor of business at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, agrees. He has been studying pay transparency for 50 years, and he said the evolution toward making salaries more open had been slow because such secrecy “is tied to the fabric of our society.”

But candidness about such matters — and as specific information as possible — is crucial, even if it feels uncomfortable, he says.

“Without that, people can’t make meaningful career decisions and contest illegal and dysfunctional practices by companies,” he says. In addition, he says, “organizations would have better results and more satisfied employees if what they pay is made public, because so much of the information out there is erroneous.”

After all, gossip tends to exaggerate things. Lawler says studies show that when pay is confidential, workers often believe the salary distributions are more unfair than they really are.

Cause for tension?

Elena Belogolovsky, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, says openness about pay could be a good thing, but it could also lead to tense and envious employees.

“I don’t believe everyone should know everyone’s pay,” Belogolovsky says. Rather, she says, it’s important that management be clear about how it determines its pay levels “so I know how and what to do in order to get more money.”

She also doesn’t think complete transparency is likely to come soon.

“It’s such a cultural taboo,” she says. “The majority of my students don’t even know what their parents make.”

Neil Gussman, a communications consultant, wouldn’t mind if that day never came. He has worked in places where all pay is public — the military, a Teamsters job on a loading dock — and where they are not. And he much prefers the latter.

In the first instance, he says, no matter how hard you worked, you knew the other workers at your level — no matter how much lazier — were making exactly what you did.

“Envy is what destroys community,” he says.

He acknowledged that in his particular situations, it was almost impossible to work his way up the ladder through merit, because pay was set by seniority and rank.

In other cases, finding out someone was making more for doing the same work, “could inspire an energetic person, but I think in many cases it will do the opposite,” Gussman says. “It will be dispiriting.”

A company that airs it all out

That’s not what Dane Atkinson, chief executive of SumAll, a data analytics company, has discovered. When he helped found the company about three years ago, a decision was made to disclose all salaries and equity shares.

The company has grown from 10 employees to about 50, and the policy remains in place.

“I’ve learned a lot as we’ve grown,” he says. “It’s a burden to manage and I have to explain my thinking. I can’t make extravagant hires. But there’s much more trust and much less politicking.”

SumAll doesn’t publicize salaries on the Web because “some of the team didn’t want the whole world knowing what they make,” Atkinson says, but job applicants are informed of salaries at a certain point in the hiring process.

When pay isn’t public, but it leaks out somehow that one co-worker is making more than another for the same work, the code of secrecy usually prevents the disgruntled worker from approaching the boss, Atkinson says.

In those cases, he says, employees might leave, slack off or even steal from the company to try to even things out. When pay is open, however, a worker can directly ask why someone is earning more and how to equalize the salaries. It’s then up to the employee to decide whether to stay or leave.

“In this way, more money goes not to those who negotiate better, but those who work the hardest,” he says. The people who resist making salaries more transparent, he says, “are usually those who think they’re making too much.”

Few believe the SumAll policy will become commonplace anytime soon. For many businesses, the goal simply is to make sure employees know they are allowed to talk about salaries and can’t be punished for it.

Although the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 has long said that employers can’t forbid employees (excluding supervisors) from discussing and disclosing their compensation, a 2010 study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than 61 percent of private sector employees surveyed said discussing their wages was either specifically prohibited or discouraged.

The executive orders signed by Obama reinforce and expand on the existing law as does the proposed Paycheck Fairness Act. The bill was introduced by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., and was blocked by Senate Republicans in April, but is expected to be reintroduced.

Such actions are signs that the way we look at salaries is changing.

“It’s inevitable this is going to happen, and it will make workplaces better,” says Howard Risher, editor of The Compensation & Benefits Review. “But it will be a rough transition.”