It might still be seen as a little taboo, but it’s certainly legal—and in many cases advantageous—to discuss salary with friends and industry peers.
Under the National Labor Relations Act, it’s illegal for most private employers to retaliate against their employees for discussing their pay, yet many companies have “pay secrecy” policies that discourage it. There’s also little enforcement of the law. Most claims of retaliation are settled before the National Labor Relations Board formally files a charge, negating the need for a hearing in front of a judge.
“In most cases, it’s unlawful to prohibit employees from talking about salaries and benefits,” Jane Heidingsfelder, a labor and employment attorney at Jones Walker, says. But talking about it is “something that certainly emboldens people.”
It all stems from unions and collective bargaining, but the legal protections extend to those outside such organizations, she says.
“When you do talk about it, it absolutely does a lot to make employers be more transparent, more equitable,” Heidingsfelder says, noting that more often than not sharing that information results in positive action, especially when it’s time for annual reviews or pay raises.
The Louisiana Equal Pay for Women Act was signed by then-Gov. Bobby Jindal in 2013, which in addition to granting equal pay for women working in state agencies, also prohibits agencies from discriminating or retaliating against employees for discussing wages, or for encouraging others to do so.
Despite these protections, it’s still not the norm for coworkers to discuss salaries. Yet as the pay gap continues to gather up the spotlight, women are increasingly polling their peers about salaries and using that new information to their advantage. Open discussions are often taking place in traditional industries, and among freelancers and other contract workers, where pay can vary widely.
Kati Hyer, director of social media and public relations for the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association, says career issues and salaries come up frequently among her core group of friends, all of whom graduated with the same major and keep in touch despite geographical divides.
“One of the things that constantly comes up is career issues, concerns, wins, losses celebrations, etc.,” Hyer says. “We share projects we’re proud of, deals we closed. And salary most of all is a frequent discussion.”
Recently, one of her friends shared how she snagged a 15% raise after “aggressively advocating for herself,” and shared the template of evidence she used to convince her employer why she had earned the raise. But while this circle of friends discusses general tactics and issues are often discussed, actual earnings typically remain a secret.
“We do talk about how we evaluate our worth, how to talk with our decision-makers about how to value us and keep us, and encourage each other on how to advocate for ourselves,” she says.
Others, however, are more hesitant to share that level of personal information.
Monica Hughes, BRAC Director of Investor Relations, says when approached with a question about her salary, she usually wonders why people want to know.
“I don’t know where they’re coming from, if I tell them, they might be thinking ‘oh, she makes a lot’ and then they feel inferior,” Hughes says, noting she doesn’t like the competitive nature of comparing salaries.
Most of the time it’s curious friends asking, but previous coworkers have broached the subject in hopes of getting a sense of what they should ask for in a salary, Hughes says. But that can be a difficult wall to take down in an office setting.
There are many tools to asses typical earnings beyond posing uncomfortable questions to a colleague. In her own salary research, Hughes relies more on online tools like Glassdoor and other resources to see what other professionals in the area are making.
“If I feel like I get a fair negotiation, I move forward,” Hughes says. “If not, I move on.”
Amy Phillips approaches the issue from a different perspective. As the owner of Cultiv8 Creative in Baton Rouge, she has these discussions with her employees and fellow female business owners.
“There’s definitely been a lot more of that type of conversation in the last three to four years among my peers,” Phillips says, noting people are becoming more open to talking about straight salary and any other benefits they’ve negotiated, like time off and flexible schedules.
“Employers may not be in a financial position to make changes,” she says, “but there are other things in the arsenal to negotiate besides compensation.”
Among her fellow business owners, the conversation often turns to how to bump up revenue so that they, too, can increase their take-home pay. It’s also about teaching one another those skills that for so long were only taught to men.
“It’s a safer space,” Phillips says. “Why aren’t we helping each other, why aren’t we addressing things we are all being challenged with but nobody’s talking about?”
In general, Phillips attributes the rise of these hard discussions to the “attitudes of people just being more real,” whether that’s in employment discussions or any aspect of life. A growing sense of female empowerment, she suggests, helps as well.