Before you answer, think about how it could help you further your own career advancement or backfire. Upon first instinct, you might feel like you owe your colleague something for revealing something so confidential. While it is only human to want to help, you don’t have to overshare if you feel uncomfortable.
If you don’t want to appear hostile by declining immediately, you can sidestep by sharing general ranges for someone in your position from sites like Glassdoor that utilise crowd-sourced information from their own community. You now have a get-out-of-jail-free card too: The Straits Times recently released a salary guide, which you could direct your colleague to.
Some companies like Buffer in America publicly post employee salaries, which has helped instil trust among employees that they’re not being low-balled. However, most Singapore companies don’t operate this way. And when speaking about something as sensitive as salaries on a personal level, especially with colleagues in the same company, it can sometimes create more awkwardness than anything else.
While it’s not illegal to share information with colleagues, you could run the risk of appearing crass, and if your employer finds out, they might not be too happy about it. Most companies in Singapore also have guidelines that prohibit such conversations, and in some cases, could be grounds for termination.
Be aware of the risks
Career coach Meiling Wong, who writes about parenting and career development on her blog, Universal Scribbles and has been a career coach for five years, is of the belief that it’s a bad idea. “You might incur suspicion as an instigator if it breeds dissatisfaction or discontentment among your colleagues. You could also invite doubt about your loyalty and commitment from management and place your professional reputation at risk,” says Meiling. The salary discussion can also cause distraction and affect your work performance. It can distract from the actual task at hand as one becomes dissatisfied with their work life and starts looking for other positions or inviting comparisons with industry peers.
Crystal Lim-Lange, CEO and co-founder of leadership consultancy Forest Wolf who regularly shares career tips and advice on Instagram and TikTok under the user name @crystallimlange echoes the same sentiment, saying “I don’t think it is productive to discuss your exact salary with one’s close co-workers as it may lead to resentment, jealousy or tension with someone you have to deal with on a daily basis. There are many reasons why co-workers earn different salaries including tasks which may not be visible to everyone, or differing experiences – skills and competencies, even though you may think you do the same role as another co-worker.”
Salary discussion is always a sensitive topic to broach between colleagues, even with the ones who are leaving. If the intention is to ascertain your market rate, I would advise you to inquire about salary ranges from friends or peers who work in similar roles in other companies or similar industries insteadMeiling Wong, Career Coach
But this does not mean you should never discuss salary with anyone. You just need to be smart about what you share, when and with whom.
“My boss once had a serious conversation with me because she thought I had discussed my salary with another colleague, who was using it to negotiate a higher salary for herself! However the disclosure of salary was made by someone else,” says Anna*, 34, recalling a time when she worked in the media industry. “Thankfully I had an understanding boss — I clarified to her that it was not me, and she explained why this was a sensitive topic. She said that there are other factors in play to one’s salary that we might not be aware of or are confidential, so using another colleague’s salary as a bargaining chip puts the supervisor in a difficult position. I do understand where she’s coming from, but of course as an employee I would want to know how I stack up amongst my peers.”
When can you broach the subject with industry friends and how
“Salary discussion is always a sensitive topic to broach between colleagues, even with the ones who are leaving. If the intention is to ascertain your market rate, I would advise you to inquire about salary ranges from friends or peers who work in similar roles in other companies or similar industries instead,” says Meiling.
It all depends on the circumstances. But you could bring up the discussion with a colleague whom you have a good relationship with when they are departing the company or when you are in the final stages of interviewing for a new job and wish to understand what your market rate is. You can also ask friends in HR/recruiting or those doing similar roles; or attend job fairs or career events where you might be able to meet recruiters or professionals in talent acquisitions — they tend to be more comfortable with salary discussions.
When speaking with recruiters or managers, Meiling’s advice is to try asking open-ended questions like “What’s the company’s salary bandwidth for this kind of role?” You can also frame your question so that it is more about market or industry discovery rather than a personal inquisition. For instance, “I hear the current market rate for this role is $xx – $xxx. Which spectrum of the salary bandwidth is your company on?”
It can be good to discuss ballpark salary ranges with recruiters, headhunters and industry contacts to share information, and share information on your salary anonymously with job sites.Crystal Lim-Lange, CEO and co-founder of leadership consultancy Forest Wolf
It’s also crucial to build a rapport with whom you are speaking with before you slip in the salary question. Sliding into the DMs of an acquaintance you haven’t spoken with in 10 years only to ask for their salary might put them off. Never mind that you are interviewing at the company that they once worked in.
Samantha*, 31, is from the finance industry and says she would be more discerning with someone from the same team, but she has shared a ballpark salary range with junior colleagues in the same company. “It has only been with people I consider to be close friends and to help them evaluate decisions they are about to make, such as job offers from other companies. I think some salary transparency is helpful and I see it more as info-sharing. There is often a wider context as to why some colleagues are of the same rank but have different pay ranges.”
Tact is paramount. Think about coming across as less direct and intrusive to help the conversation be more fluid and less personal. “It will also allow the person to whom the question is directed some room to craft their answer without violating their private space or redirecting the question should they choose not to answer. This will help to avoid any embarrassment from either party,” says Meiling. Be prepared to change the subject or redirect the question if the person seems uncomfortable too.
Amy*, 32, who works at a bank says she is less likely to reveal her salary to colleagues if she feels as if she is in a good place and on the higher end of the salary spectrum, as she wants to maintain workplace harmony. But she has in the past spoken about it with colleagues in the same roles when she suspected herself to be on the lower end.
“I broached the subject with a colleague who I knew had just gotten a raise. When I found out we held the same title but she made $1,000 more than me, I felt sad that I wasn’t rewarded the same way for the same work. Without revealing my source, I tried to negotiate for an increment with my boss, citing my own achievements. My boss asked that I be patient and wait another one or two months, as he needed to put my name forward to management. I didn’t receive any updates in the following months, so I decided to leave the company,” she says. Eventually, she did manage to secure the increment she wanted elsewhere.
Sources to turn to that won’t sour the relationship
Needless to say, pay transparency can be empowering, as it enables employees to know their worth, future prospects and industry standards. “It can be good to discuss ballpark salary ranges with recruiters, headhunters and industry contacts to share information, and share information on your salary anonymously with job sites,” advises Crystal. So don’t shy away from speaking about it altogether.
You can also regularly attend job interviews for similar roles to gather your own market research. Then when it is the right time for you to negotiate salary, whether in your company or at a new company you’re interviewing with, you can say with confidence what you know to be a fair amount.
As the goal of salary discussions is often to see how you can negotiate for higher pay, Crystal also recommends alternate ways of getting salary benchmarks, such as through Glassdoor, Nodeflair, professional organisations, headhunters, industry surveys and job ads. “I would recommend researching your own market value in such ways rather than just through trading statistics with colleagues, as they may be delivering biased or selective information. When you can point to hard data or industry comparable, it is easier for you to make a case to your boss or HR why your compensation should be adjusted upwards if necessary,” she says.
*Names have been changed.