24 September 2008

Salary Shock & Envy

When a friend married a tall building lawyer about 35 years ago, she told her parents what her husband's starting salary was. They were in shock. The salary bested the father's pay as a full professor at a state university. My friend bemoaned that she should have known better.

Today, older generations (that's us, baby boomers) continue to be stunned when they learn of their offspring's salary but that almost always reflects a difference in fields, a fact that often goes unnoticed. The teacher is not aware of common salaries of lawyers; a lawyer is not aware of common salaries of physicians; a physician is not aware of common salaries of consultants. The result is salary shock, akin to sticker shock.

While family members' reaction to news of salaries may remain in the shock category, coworkers' knowledge of each other's pay is more likely to generate salary envy. Awareness of other people's salaries is a well-known problematic workplace issue. Published pay scales do not necessarily bode well for collegiality and most employees take heart in the masking that emerges even when a scale exists. One can rationalize that Mr. A may have a high salary but he's been around for 30 years. And one can doubt that Ms. B is making the same because she's been on the job only 5 years. And one can simply wonder about Mr. C, whose age and tenure are well-kept secrets. Information about pay becomes fuzzy and forgotten and the workers typically like it that way.

In some workplaces, salaries are literally published every year—not just pay scales or salary ladders but actual salaries for the previous budget year. Who would do such a thing? My most recent full-time gig, a state university in Texas. The budget book was traditionally found in the campus library and more recently also distributed electronically to administrators (not to faculty). I never went to the library to visit it but that doesn't mean I didn't hear of the contents. A colleague made the annual trek and jotted notes from the big book. She would then phone me with the figures and I would listen. The first year, I actually wrote down the figures and paid a heavy price: I remembered them. In subsequent years, I intentionally did not record the information. I just let it wash over me and then let it drift from memory. Eventually, this colleague quit calling with the report. Was I still curious about campus salaries? Sure. Was I compelled to seek out the information? Nope. Being a little in the dark is sometimes very comfortable.

Another colleague at the same institution sought total darkness on the subject. Early in her career she had read the salary listings with intent interest and wrecked her sense of calm for months. In that day, it was the inequity of salaries between sexes that riled at least half the people reviewing the numbers. She made a conscious decision to ignore the published salaries. After a few years, even the curiosity dissipated. (The salary difference by sex is also diminished...but still exists.)

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold (www.marybold.com, www.boldproductions.com, College Intern Blog) is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, financial, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

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