How much you earn - the last taboo?

Maricruz Manzanarez (left) earns $34,000 per year as a senior custodian at UC Berkeley. Her salary is public record, as is the half-million-salary of the president of the California University system Mark Yudof.

I dare you: The next friend or co-worker you see, tell them how much you get paid.

Couldn't do it, could you?

Salary and compensation is as taboo a subject as you can get in America. Many people will talk about their sex lives before they'll talk about the size of their paycheck. But the secrecy surrounding our paychecks may be one reason pay can vary so much, sometimes in unfair ways.

That's not the case for one Boulder, Colo. company: "We have what I like to call 'Extreme Transparency,'" said Amanda Bybee, vice president at Namaste Solar.

There's a lot of sunshine going on inside this solar power installation company. Every employee can see a spreadsheet listing what everybody else makes. Terry Lima, an accountant, said she looks at it all the time and sees quite a few folks paid more.

"I don't feel short-changed," Lima explains. "I am also grateful to know that there's no back-door deals, that I don't have to do some political something so that I can make more money for myself."

Namaste is extreme in other ways, too. It's employee-owned. Every worker, including Surendra Thapa, the forklift driver, is privy to all the company's financials, including every permanent employee's pay rate.

Do you tell your friends, family, or co-workers how much you make? Depends on your income. Explore answers and data from more than 150 respondents.

Given this culture, I figured people like Bybee, the VP, would tell me tell me this transparency about salaries is all sweetness and light. But no.

"I have a colleague who's making a little less than me who comes to me and says 'I don't think you deserve to make more than I am making,'" Bybee said. "This is a true story. He said it respectfully. I listened to him with as much openness as I could. And we're talking a difference of a thousand dollars a year."

Bybee said they worked it out and are buddies again. But CEO Blake Jones acknowledges these conversations are uncomfortable.

"But it's worth, being out in the open," Jones said. "It's worth facing the fears that you might have about talking about it."

Being clear on salaries makes good business sense, Jones says. It builds trust and also makes co-workers accountable -- they notice if someone's getting paid to goof off. But the transparency is for inside the company. Tellingly, neither Jones nor Bybee talks about their pay rate outside the company.

"The taboo around money may be our last standing taboo," said New York University financial sociologist Kate Zaloom.

Zaloom says this explains one of the great mysteries: how it is that given wide gaps in income in America, everybody walks around thinking we're so equal.

"Of course everyone in America thinks that they're middle class," Zaloom said. "But the only way that someone who makes $12,000 a year and someone who makes $200,000 a year can assume that they are all in the same social category is by never actually revealing what they make to each other."

It's not just a social taboo. Many employers enforce this.

"I am in fact prohibited from telling anyone how much I make contractually," Zaloom said.

Had Zaloom worked not for NYU but the University of California, we could look up her pay ourselves. The Sacramento Bee newspaper was able to put the salaries of California state employees onto a website for all to see. How's that make the workers feel, employees like UC Berkeley Professor David Card?

"I'm a labor economist and for a labor economist we're always analyzing salaries. So it's possible I might be desensitized," Card explains. 

So, Professor Card, how much do you make?

"My salary from the university is around $300,000 a year," he said without hesitation. "Well, you can look it up on the Internet."

Card studied the effect of the salary website and found that fellow employees who noticed they were doing better than the average (golden) bear kinda shrugged, but people who were doing worse than their peers tended to be really upset.

"And that might be one of the reasons why employers insist insist on pay secrecy as part of the deal on working there," Card said in a wry tone. "It's really going to make the lower wage people much less happy."

Maricruz Manzanares is a senior custodian at UC Berkeley with more than 12 years experience. She also now sites on the board of her service employees union local. Together, we navigate to the Sacramento Bee's salary website on my iPad.

Here's what it says about Manzanares's pay: $34,493.10.

The pay is obviously no surprise to Manzanares. But as that $34,000 sits there, stark on the iPad screen, she thinks of her three children and how that salary doesn't leave much left over to pay for their college.

"How can we ask my kids to…put more into something that me as a mother cannot even help them with," she wonders.

But she sees there is power in getting salaries out into the open. Her union has used the website to prepare for contract negotiations.

"Actually it's good that somebody put this website on there so we can check," Manzanares said. "If we put Mr. Yudof's name in there, it will show up."

Mark Yudof is the president of the California University system. His salary, according to the database: $560,594.00. Over half a million dollars.

"This is only for him and his wife," Manzanares notes. "My salary has to be for my three children and me. So…that's ridiculous."

Which gets us to the special case of executive salaries. Tomorrow in our Payday series we take a look at how companies decide what to pay those at the very top.

More than 150 people responded to our question whether or not they talk about their salary with friends, family, or co-workers. View a chart show the trends behind their responses and read excerpts.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

Maricruz Manzanarez (left) earns $34,000 per year as a senior custodian at UC Berkeley. Her salary is public record, as is the half-million-salary of the president of the California University system Mark Yudof.

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Actually I was thinking about this today. People usually don't like to talk about how much they make. For example, when you work at an office, you have no idea how much your coworker makes, unless you are close friends and share everything. similarly, you would have no idea how much your boss makes. It's kind of interesting. Personally, I wouldn't tell someone how much I make unless I have been friends with them for a long time.
James from http://www.bedbugattorney.co

Well, sites like www.thesalarypeople.com show you almost every salary there is, no survey, no guessing, no employee based entried, but US government sources....try it...type obstetrician as a job for example, look up your own firm.

People like talking that’s why it’s hard to keep some things in secret. But I think that in case you work in a large company then it’s not worth to dissucuss the size of your paycheck even if you have friendly relationship with your colleagues. No one wants there to be rumors about him/her and no one wants to be fired by such a stupid reason. I think that it’s okay to discuss such things with friends or family members but not with colleagues. The size of you paycheck can become a reason for many conversations and disucussions. Also it’s not worth to mix work and friendship, money is a complicated topic so it’s better to avoid it with people you do not know very well.
Jen from http://paydayloansat.com/

"But the only way that someone who makes $12,000 a year and someone who makes $200,000 a year can assume that they are all in the same social category is by never actually revealing what they make to each other."

Yeah, cause I discuss my salary with my barista all the time, cause that's how tight we are.

Seriously, if you can't tell the difference between someone making $12k and someone making $200k, then you might be Mitt Romney (check your owner's manual).

I thought that the part about comparing Manzanarre's and Yudof's salary was irresponsible and surely not about financial literacy- something that I expect from MarketPlace. Comparing a custodian salary with a UC president is silly and to say that it hinges on how many children one has is strange. Instead of going for an emotional appeal about how ridiculous it is for a University President to make that much money although he is childless maybe you should have explained to the audience that often how much someone makes is based on how much education they have as well as their experience and the amount of responsibility they take on…We need REAL Financial Literacy in this country !

Also worth asking is why the interview was left hanging with Ms. Manzanares' comment which has nothing to do with the difference between the president's pay and a senior custodian. Incredibly lame editing-for-effect or incompetence are a couple of possibilities; neither of which is typically expected from this organization.

Here's an interesting fact: the highest paid State of California employee is the football coach for the Cal Bears football team. He makes over 3 million a year. The second highest paid employee is the UCLA basketball coach. What does this say about our education system? And don't tell me that these guys bring millions into the system via alumni donations. That has been disproven. Intercollegiate sports have nothing to do with an academic education and should not be allowed to drain the resources of our public education system they way they are. Coaches should be volunteers and there are plenty of guys who would do it for free. Enough said.

I too experienced a colleague who became upset when she learned that i made a few thousand more than she did even though we were in the same job.

She tended to work for one company where i moved around and was able to negotiate a better salary with each move. By the time i arrived at her company i was earning more than she was.

We had a conversation and i taught her how to negotiate salary. That was 20 years ago and she is now very well off financially & has her own biz. & ahead $$ wise than her "teacher" ( but that wont be for too much longer as my work is about to take off too after this long recession)

This reminds me of a piece I read in a print news paper a few years ago about the change in SEC regulations some time ago (late 90's perhaps), where CEO salary's were made public. The people pushing for the change naively thought that if the CEO salary's were published the individuals would be ashamed of the amount they were making, compared to their peers and not demand pay raises. Boy were they wrong. CEO compensation has only gone up since then, because CEO's can use that information as leverage during the highering process. The CEO's can argue that the company isn't going to beat their competitors if they have a CEO that isn't paid more than their competitors CEO's.


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