Salary talk with coworkers: Is it ever a good idea?

April 2, 2013: 11:59 AM ET

Sharing your salary with coworkers often leads to disappointment and lower job satisfaction.

By Deena Shanker

Dollar Stairs And Ladder --- Image by © Images.com/Corbis

FORTUNE -- In a time where your office mate's embarrassing New Year's photos or the details of your boss's lavish vacation are just a few Facebook clicks away, the lines between personal information and workplace knowledge are getting fuzzier everyday.

Despite a growing willingness to share private information with colleagues -- and the world -- one topic remains safely nestled in the taboo column: compensation.

Money talk has long been considered uncouth, but it's not just social norms that have kept such conversations in the dark. According to a 2011 report from the Institute for Women's Policy Research, almost half of all American workers are either expressly prohibited or strongly discouraged by their employers from discussing their pay with coworkers.

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Even when it's not against the rules, experts warn against bringing up the pay scale with people in your office. For one, says career coach Carin Rockind, "if management ever found out, it makes you look dissatisfied and could backfire."

Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career expert and co-author of How the Fierce Handle Fear: Secrets to Succeeding in Challenging Times, compares salary talk to dating in the workplace. "You can always find examples where it's a good idea," she says. "But for the most part, it ends badly. So you have to proceed with caution."

Rockind emphasizes that these conversations usually lead to disappointment and lower job satisfaction.  "Should you find out someone is making more money than you, it will immediately make you feel worse about your job and worse about your manager," she says.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research published in September, 2010 reached the same conclusion. The researchers gave a random set of University of California employees access to a website that listed University workers' salary information. While workers who discovered that they made less than average ultimately reported lower job satisfaction, there was no reciprocal increase in reported satisfaction among those who found out that their earnings were above average.

Pamela Teagarden, founder of the Soluna Institute and an expert in corporate behavioral psychology, says that salary comparison conversations often arise because most workplaces operate in what is known as a "Prisoner's Dilemma." "Rather than cooperating, [colleagues are] forced to compare and compete because everyone is trying for the next promotion, for the win." Comparing salaries only reinforces that dynamic, undermining a team's ability to work together toward a common goal, Teagarden argues. To avoid this problem, Teagarden recommends that companies focus on other, non-monetary, "extrinsic motivators," like encouraging friendship among coworkers and valuing employees' opinions.

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Rockind also emphasizes this non-monetary approach. "There's a belief in our society that money leads to happiness," Rockind says. "But it's actually the other way around: It's not that money leads to happiness, it's that happy people make more money."

Employers should also keep an eye on market rates to make sure they're not underpaying -- or overpaying -- their talent, says Ceniza-Levine.

Is it ever a good idea to bring up salary with your colleagues? This question may be even more important for women, whose weekly full-time median income in 2012 was 19.1% lower than their male counterparts, according to a March 2013 IWPR study on the gender wage gap.

There are more effective ways to boost your salary than by comparing paystubs with coworkers, Rockind says. She and Ceniza-Levine recommend looking at industry averages instead. Websites like Salary.com, Payscale.com, and Glassdoor.com let you peek at analogous compensation scales in your geographical region without having to awkwardly ask people you see everyday. You can also talk to people outside of your office to gather this kind of information. "When we want to uphold our reputation at the company, but we still want to find out if we're making a fair wage, this is a great time to use our networks," Rockind says. Consult with HR professionals and use informational interviews to find out about the going rate for your position.

Even while most experts advise against having these conversations with coworkers, Christine Shin, a career counselor at Barnard College, notes that "knowledge is power" and offers a few ways to bring the topic up without causing offense. Shin suggests asking about salary ranges within a given department instead of inquiring about specific numbers for individuals. "Saying 'salary range' makes people more comfortable than answering the question, 'What do you make?'"

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