As a recruiter, and professional nosey-parker, I always loved finding out intimate details of individuals’ working lives, which they would never reveal to other people.  One of those, of course, is the biggest taboo subject in the workplace –salary.  A spokesman for the Government Equalities Office says: “From October 2010 the Equality Act will make pay ‘gagging’ clauses unenforceable so that companies will no longer be able to stop employees discussing their salaries with colleagues in order to find out if they are being discriminated against.”  We already know that inequality in pay for the sexes thrives under this kind of secrecy.

There are, of course, legitimate concerns about the issues which would arise from total salary transparency in many workplaces.  However, consider that there are so many roles in the public sector, where pay grades are already publicly known, and everyone seems able to handle the information just fine.  In the police, armed forces, teaching, and medical professions, there is no harm caused by this knowledge, and you could argue that when everyone is in the same boat, they feel much more able to act collectively to argue for better pay and conditions.

Employers argue that having the discretion to vary salaries allows them to attract, reward and retain the best staff, and that transparency would lead to unrest, and inevitably higher salaries all round.  This is partly why they are often very reluctant to display salaries on vacancy adverts, and greatly encourages the very British notion of reticence in this area.

Candidates get very weird when it comes to discussing salaries in interview situations, not fully realising that the potential employer is scared to broach the subject too.  In many cases the salary most people earn is not based upon their actual worth or value to a company, but on the strength of their bargaining position at the point when they got the job.  Extreme discomfort, and the inability to talk about it, also prompts many people to simply find a new job to get a raise, rather than risk a rejection from their current boss.

In these stricken times, salary can also be a big factor when deciding who to make redundant in a company.  Legally it shouldn’t be, but when a firm needs to make big savings, it’s the big wage earners who are most at risk.  Again, redundancies are often made, when a frank discussion could have revealed an individual would have taken a salary cut, if it was an option.

In Norway, everyone’s tax returns are made public for a three week period every Autumn. In the USA, anyone seeking election to even a junior public office must reveal their full earnings. Wouldn’t it be so much better in the UK if we were encouraged to be more open about our income, at least with our colleagues, and understand maturely that some people earn more or less than ourselves for good reason?

Click here to play the “What are they worth” quiz on the BBC website.

PS. Here’s the point where a BBC presenter is forced to reveal her salary live on TV.  Skip to 4m 45secs of the clip.


Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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