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Is Salary Transparency The Answer To Workplace Stress?

We’re living in a world with no off switches and our burnout is at a boiling point. Powered Down explores how the system has failed us and what we can do to find our way off the hamster wheel — for good.
When Victoria M. Walker left her position at The Points Guy, a travel news website, in February 2022, she tweeted. And while a tweet declaring a job departure isn’t a groundbreaking act for those in the media world, this particular announcement was different. “Oh! Before I forget — if you apply for my old job as Senior Travel Reporter, you should ask for no less than 115k, a signing bonus & a relocation bonus if you're moving to NYC,” she wrote. “In full transparency, I was at 107k. I believe being transparent is one way to achieve equity in media.”
Walker didn’t expect the tweet to get as much attention as it did. Since posting, it has received almost 80,000 likes and a mountain of replies from people praising her candor and sharing their own salaries — and she’s glad she did it. “I didn't want anybody to go into the role, a senior role, that required at least five years of reporting experience to ask for $50,000 when they could be making double that,” Walker tells Refinery29.
By being direct about her compensation, Walker set up her successor — and the rest of us following along — for, well, success. When it comes to pay, we’re often left in the dark on whether or not we’re making an appropriate amount for a new position or even a promotion. Companies often use this unspoken rule of salary secrecy against us to lowball workers and create uncertainty around pay, which can lead to — you guessed it — feeling stressed, undervalued, and burned out.

Companies often use this unspoken rule of salary secrecy against us to lowball workers and create uncertainty around pay, which can lead to — you guessed it — feeling stressed, undervalued, and burned out.

Burnout is, of course, a well-known workplace phenomenon, and it’s only worsened since the start of the pandemic. According to research published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, there are six main causes of burnout — two of which relate to compensation: insufficient reward and an absence of fairness. In other words, if you’re not getting paid what you deserve or you feel that you’re getting paid unfairly (and, in turn, you feel like you’re not valued by your employer), you’ll end up feeling unmotivated, dissatisfied, and overall, detached from work.
This, in turn, “eats our cognitive and emotional bandwidth, leading to distress in daily life,” says Denise M. Rousseau, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. In other words, when we feel as though we’re not valued by the company we work for, we can hit a mental wall. Dr. Rousseau tells Refinery29 that it makes sense for pay transparency to ease burnout and stress — historically, these conversations have taken place behind closed doors, but, by bringing them out into the open like Walker did, we’re able to understand how and why our colleagues are being paid a certain amount, and if we think it's fair, we’ll feel more understanding and less anxiety around the subject.
The term fairness, here, is key. Ongoing salary transparency in the workplace promotes a sense of something called procedural justice, which is perceived fairness in the way decisions are made in a company, according to Dr. Rousseau. “It actually helps, over time, to make people feel more comfortable with the HR and compensation system,” she says. Establishing that trust between worker and employee is essential for things such as retention and overall job satisfaction. “When there is this sense of inequity, people are going to engage in behaviors to try and restore equity,” Tammy Allen, PhD, organizational psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida, previously told Refinery29.
These behaviors can include sharing salaries, unionizing, or — if all else fails — leaving a company, all things our workplaces don’t want us to do. “Fostering an environment where it’s kind of taboo or seen as something that you shouldn't talk about, ultimately doesn't serve the worker,” Walker says. “It serves the employer.”
Because, let’s face it, we live in a capitalist market that often pits people against one another, and discussing pay is not only a way to alleviate our burnout, but also keep the playing field even, particularly for women of color who are disproportionately paid less — 36% less than white men and 20% less than white women — and to prevent wage suppression, which is something that happens when employers intentionally keep their wages below a competitive rate.
For Walker, as a journalist, there’s an ethical obligation to it too. “We demand transparency from sources, we demand transparency from government entities… why can't we be transparent about what we make?” she says. “It'll help your women colleagues. It'll help your people of color colleagues. It’ll help your colleagues who are younger achieve parity and equity in their workplaces.”
It’s also a rejection of the conditions we’ve been forced to work under. Refinery29’s union, for example, has a separate Slack channel where R29 employees share their current salaries and pay journeys within the company. Other unionized media companies have their contracts — and their salary floors — public, so those in similar roles know what the least amount of money they should be making is. Buffer, a social media management platform for brands, has made their employees' salaries and their salary formula public in the hopes that other companies will follow suit. Sharing salaries has even become a TikTok trend, with people airing their current and former salaries out to their followers and their respective For You Pages. And many, like Walker, are taking to Twitter.
For Christen Nino De Guzman, her very first experience with pay transparency happened in her first full-time job out of college when she learned about an entry-level coworker’s salary. “I remember it was $20,000 more than I had made, and I’d been out of college and working there for two years. I was so shocked that they would pay someone who [had] less experience and came in after me [that amount],” Nino De Guzman tells Refinery29. She ended up leaving, and has since worked at companies such as Pinterest, Instagram, and Google, for much higher salaries, all of which she has shared publicly on TikTok to her almost 350,000 followers. “I think by just talking about it, it helps not only empower you, but also your circle and your coworkers,” she says. Now, Nino De Guzman is the founder of a newly launched app called Clara, which aims to ensure transparency and equal pay for content creators.
A similar situation happened when Nancy, a public relations professional based in Los Angeles, who asked that her last name not be used, started discussing her salary with coworkers. In the span of a year, the agency grew from eight people to 20 — there were more accounts to work on with more responsibilities, but the salaries stayed stagnant, and the employees began to talk. “This [was] the start of a massive turnover in employees at this agency,” she tells Refinery29. After discovering how little her and her coworkers were being paid compared to market rate, they started to search for new jobs with the support of one another.
Once a coworker went on to a new position where his salary almost doubled, the workers then knew they could get paid far more elsewhere. “I’m a first-generation Latina, and a lot of Latinos have this mentality of, take what you can get, as opposed to, I deserve to be getting paid more,” she says. “I feel like with a lot of POC, it's important to have that because we're always in that scarcity mentality. [Transparency] is such a helpful tool.” Nancy now has a new job and a salary that’s almost twice what she was making before.
Although salary transparency between coworkers is becoming a more popular practice, we still have a long way to go. It’s seen as taboo to share personal information regarding finances, much like how we often don’t discuss other topics such as sex or politics in the workplace. Money’s a bit different, though — the anxiety of being less than your peers compounded with the competitive nature of capitalism can make these conversations even more difficult to have. We often equate our salaries with our personal worth — if you find out you’re making less than another coworker of the same rank, you may start to question your value as a person overall.
Important steps are being made. The New York City Council, for example, passed a bill in January that will require companies with four or more employees to put a salary range in job advertisements, promotions, and transfer opportunities starting on May 15. Colorado, Connecticut, and Maryland have all enacted similar laws regarding pay transparency, and it’s a good first move towards creating a more informed equitable pay system, says Dr. Rousseau. “It doesn't solve a problem, but it could be the basis of solving a problem.”
For others, pay transparency isn’t an option. The salaries of people employed by the state — such as teachers or government workers — are public record. “I think having a public salary and set raises based on our union contract keeps things fair across the board, because within the office there is no competition for raises, and our performance doesn’t necessarily affect how we get paid,” says Christina*, a social worker employed by the state of New Jersey.

While making salaries public knowledge doesn’t necessarily make them even, it can alleviate the fear of not knowing what your coworker is making, not knowing what your earning potential in a position could be, and not knowing if you’re being paid fairly.

And while making salaries public knowledge doesn’t necessarily make them even, it can alleviate the fear of not knowing what your coworker is making, not knowing what your earning potential in a position could be, and not knowing if you’re being paid fairly enough for the work you’re doing. “[Having public salaries] does alleviate stress around pay — especially when we get hired, there is a range and it cannot go above a certain amount,” Christina says. “Once you reach the top of your range, you can’t make anymore and need to move up and get a different role to make more money.”
Dr. Rousseau says that this kind of public salary structure “creates a greater sense of fairness on the basis in which pay is granted, and also a greater sense of cooperation between labor and management.” While it’ll be hard to convince private companies to air out their workers' salaries, being open and honest with your coworkers, friends, and even strangers, is a step in the right direction towards pay equity.
Walker, who is now a freelance travel journalist and special correspondent to the American South, acknowledges that it can be a very painful conversation when one finds out they’re being underpaid. “As this hopefully becomes more common, employers are going to have to address this,” she says. “Whether it's by being publicly shamed or by employees holding their feet to the fire, eventually, this is going to have to be addressed.” The match has been lit and the embers are being stoked; when it comes to salary transparency, a reckoning is coming.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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