Last week, I was filling a little dead space in my workday IM-ing with my friend Jane, a magazine editor in New York. As we discussed our careers in a way that we probably shouldn't have at our workplaces (sorry, boss!), the subject of our salaries came up.
"How much do u make?" I queried, quickly balancing my brazenness with "Don't tell me if you don't want to."
"I don't care," she shot back and told me. I was shocked to learn that my friend, who is four years my junior, makes more money than I do. I felt ... bad. And a little regretful that our so-open relationship had crossed over into taboo territory.
In case you missed it, everyone's talking about their salary, at least the under 35-set, if you believe The New York Times' Sunday Styles section. But not everyone agrees on how it should be discussed and, among the stodgy (older?) holdouts, whether it should be discussed at all. But one thing is certain: Everyone's got an opinion.
"I'm not going to run around blabbing to everyone, 'Guess how much money I make,'" said Jenna Naranjo, a 29-year-old associate producer in Washington, D.C. "But I think sometimes when you're still trying to figure it all out, it's hard to negotiate. I remember when I was negotiating for my salary, I didn't know what to do. If you ask your friends if they've been through this before, maybe they'll ask you [your salary] and you'll tell them."
A lot of people I talked to echoed this sentiment, and believe me, everyone wanted to talk, from my co-workers who gathered around my desk to talk about my assignment to the 40 or so friends who responded within 20 minutes to a mass e-mail I sent.
"Obviously with Facebook, no one really has a private life," Naranjo said. "I think people are more able to talk about anything with their friends, whether it's salary or other things in their private life. Why wouldn't you sit down with your best friend and talk about your salary, your boyfriend, your sex life? I know when I need to negotiate my next salary, the first thing I'm going to do is quiz my friends and acquaintances about what I should do. If I don't ask them, who am I going to ask?"
Whether Facebook or other networking sites are a factor, the hard-to-navigate salary-revealing game has developed its own special set of rules, and everyone interprets them differently.
Rule #1: Do not talk about your salary with your co-workers.
For many people, talking about salary at all, much less at work, is the ultimate taboo, even -- and perhaps especially -- for managers.
"I feel strongly that co-workers shouldn't talk about it because it only leads to animosity between the associate and the manager," one upper-level manager at a large company said. "I don't talk about any aspect of my benefits. ... I don't disclose anything. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."
The Chicago-based 38-year-old manager makes sure that her employees do the same.
"It's completely taboo," the manager said. "[Sharing information] can give a misperception to a person about pay. I can't go get that person another 20 grand. So the conversation is very strained. It gives the misperception that they're not being paid what they're worth. It can lead to all sorts of different animosity."
Rachael Rosenblum, a 27-year-old fashion designer, refuses to talk to anyone about her salary -- unless she knows she'll never work with them.