Opinion

Is it time to overcome the salary taboo?

6 min read

17 September 2019

Call it our British sensibilities and innate politeness, but whatever it is, not discussing salaries at work can demotivate employees and make them go elsewhere.

If there is one thing that defines how the workplace has changed in recent years, it’s our attitude to pay. In the past, the merest mention to a co-worker of the amount inside their pay packet was seriously frowned upon.

This was very much part of British sensibilities where it was rude to discuss money, mainly among the more well-to-do in society, which spread its way throughout offices and factories across the land until it became as ingrained in our working lives as much as the morning cup of coffee.

Should we be discussing salaries?

Many employees even thought it was against the law to discuss salaries, which, of course, it isn’t. The Equalities Act of 2010 states that employees have the right to discuss salaries for the purpose of collective bargaining or protection.

There’ll be some people who still won’t be comfortable or confident about discussing their worth or wages. Does that mean they’ll be left lower down the salary ladder?

The fact that this law had to be brought in and workers were convinced their bosses could legally block colleagues from discussing wages goes to show how deep-rooted this issue had become.

More commonly, though, it has been down to misplaced politeness, which previously will have meant that some companies were able to employ unfair pay practices and lead to workers not getting less than what they deserve.

Is (salary) transparency the answer?

Transparency has always been an important part of my business life. It started with putting our rates on the website, which, at the time, was rare in the trades – and still is for some firms!

But when it came to wages, I brought it into sharp focus by volunteering Pimlico to be part of an experiment on a Channel 4 TV show, ‘Show Me Your Money’.

What I learned from the ‘transparency lesson’

It was a bit of a risk and did, initially, put a few noses out of joint, but ultimately it put us in a much better position moving forward. It also reinforced to me that all businesses would benefit from this kind of transparency.

And it appears, based on a BBC report I heard at the end of last week, that there are a group of firms that have taken this level of openness among their workforces a step further by enabling their employees to decide their own salaries.

What is ‘self-set pay’?

What has been dubbed ‘self-set pay’ reflects the changes businesses are making to attract the best talent by offering the most appealing employment packages.

Being transparent and upfront made a real difference in my business, as it is in these tech firms, and undoubtedly it can have a positive impact on many others up and down the country.

There doesn’t appear to be a common approach to this emerging process, with some firms enabling workers to discuss why they think they should be paid with their colleagues and, if they agree, it is put to their employers along with information about what others are getting elsewhere for similar jobs.

Another firm mentioned in the BBC report appoints six staff to provide feedback to any employee who feels they should have a higher salary.

Can we learn something from the tech sector?

The tech sector is very open to employees choosing their own salaries or seeking higher ones.

This new trend currently appears to be confined to the tech sector, which, to be fair, is the birthplace of a lot of new thinking, both in terms of development of new products and services, but also for the evolving 21st-century workplace.

Whether it catches on is another matter, and like all new things, there will always be issues that’ll need to be ironed out. There’ll be some people who still won’t be comfortable or confident about discussing their worth or wages. Does that mean they’ll be left lower down the salary ladder?

Could ‘salary talk’ help retain key workers?

Like anything that fundamentally impacts on people’s livelihoods, this will need to be handled very carefully, but fair play to those businesses who have taken a fresh approach to how they attract and retain their workers.

Being transparent and upfront made a real difference in my business, as it is in these tech firms, and undoubtedly it can have a positive impact on many others up and down the country.