You probably know what the guy who sits next to you at work has for lunch every day, how often he calls his wife, how much money he bet on the Astros last weekend, maybe even how much his house is worth. But how much he makes for a living? That's off limits. After all, there is possibly no matter more shrouded in secrecy, nor a riper topic for office gossip, than what everyone gets paid.
Yet the U.S. Supreme Court seems quite optimistic about people's ability to figure out what co-workers earn. On May 29, in a 5-4 opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (GT ), the court held that wage discrimination lawsuits must be brought within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. That is, 180 days after the original payment was set--not when the worker finds out. Now that workers are facing such a tight time frame to file lawsuits, the controversial court decision raises an important question about the workplace: Do workers actually know what the person in the next office makes?
The answer: not really. Some companies, as a matter of policy, forbid employees from discussing the size of their paychecks. But this rule, which may not be legal, is hardly necessary. Salary information "is probably the most confidential thing other than sexual orientation" in the workplace, says Neil Mullin, a Montclair (N.J.) labor lawyer. People seem anxious about revealing their compensation to co-workers--whether because of the mortification of being exposed as underpaid or the awkwardness of substantially outearning a more productive colleague.
That may explain why many people tacitly tolerate disparities in pay by avoiding the subject entirely. "Social relations are a big source of people's satisfaction" in the workplace, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford University School of Business. Self-enforced salary secrecy "can maintain a certain kind of social serenity."
In recent years the Internet has begun to shed a sliver of light on obscure wage information. General compensation Web sites such as Salary.com (SLRY ) and Vault, and sector-specific ones such as cafepharma, allow users to glean industry salary averages. Investment bankers use an old trick to learn how colleagues made out on their yearend bonuses: Each one will secretly write down his or her figure on a slip of paper, which is then drawn randomly out of a hat. Now that ritual, too, has been moved online thanks to anonymous survey sites like SurveyMonkey.com, where officewide results can instantly be analyzed and forwarded.
'YOU HAVE TO BE SNEAKY'
Still, the most common ways in which people discover how much they are under- or overpaid are haphazard, requiring either a deep tribal knowledge of the office's political landscape or a fair bit of luck. A Chicago financial analyst recalls a former colleague who, convinced he was underpaid, spied over low cubicle walls to see co-workers' computer screens around payday. Often he would extrapolate salaries based on an electronic pay stub or a 401(k) statement left up on a screen. A Boston area financial planner successfully gathered evidence for a gender discrimination case by staying in the office after hours and peering into open mail slots for sales commission notices. "You have to be sneaky," she says. (It's an indication of just how taboo it is to discuss pay openly that almost no one to whom BusinessWeek spoke agreed to be named, citing company policy, legal concerns, or simple propriety.)
The Supreme Court may have unwittingly encouraged such subterfuge, suggest many plaintiffs' attorneys, who have roundly condemned the opinion as impractical and a death knell to many compensation lawsuits. With the clock ticking, employees have to be more sensitive than ever to context clues, such as how co-workers are dressing or what kind of computer they've been given, says Rania V. Sedhom, a human resources expert at BDO Seidman. Or they'll need to train an eagle eye on documents carelessly laid on a secretary's desk. Better still is to induce a co-worker, who may be plied with fancy chocolate or afterwork drinks, to simply blurt out what somebody is making. Workers who suspect they should be earning more need to act soon after their salary is set-- 180 days go by in a hurry.
By Brian Hindo