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Honest Discussion About Wages Right On the Money

February 1, 1999
Money. In many ways, we talk about it more than any other subject. During the first week of January, the time at which I'm writing this, money seems to be the only thing people are talking about: The stock market has, once again, soared to record highs. The euro has just been introduced, setting the stage for a unified European economy. The basketball season has just been saved by an agreement between the millionaire players and the owners.

You get the idea. In some ways, our discussion of money is incessant. It shouldn't be surprising that much of this month's issue is also about money: Overtime pay, incentive pay and so on. The reason is clear enough: You can't afford to ignore your fiscal responsibility to the organization. Therefore, we can't ignore it, either.

But for all our talk about money in an abstract sense, or about other people's money in particular, some subjects remain taboo. I'd be willing to bet, well, money that you're more likely to talk about your religious beliefs, your politics or even intimate details about your personal relationships than you are to talk about how much money you make. We hate to talk about salaries.

When we do talk, we're more likely to whine or complain than anything else. For example, employees at a local department store are about to vote on whether to unionize. The leader of the pro-union movement explained to the local newspaper that she is pushing the issue because she hasn't had a raise in three years. On vacation recently, I heard a tirade from a bus driver, about to vote on a strike authorization, about how little he earns. The media has been full of stories about the growing wage gap, the lost earning power of the middle class, and inflated CEOsalaries. There also is ongoing coverage of the persistent reality that women often earn less than men do.

Yet for all the huffing and puffing about wages, no one talks about the real issue: What is work-any work-worth? Is Tom Cruise worth $20 million per movie? How much more is a good secretary worth than a mediocre one? Do we really believe that teachers are worth less than professional volleyball players?

Who knows? None of us knows because we don't talk about it. We've never even tried to answer those questions. There's no consensus about wages, and so we all look at the situation from our own point of view. Because there is no context in which to think about it, we conclude that everybody else earns too much and we earn too little.

Am I oversimplifying? Only slightly. As a society, we're truly terrible about discussing things we don't want to talk about. Sex and death are two subjects that come to mind. Wages are another. Until we have real dialogue, and reach consensus and understanding, we will continue to face anger and confusion about money, and HR jobs will be tougher.

Perhaps the questions can't ever really be answered. But think about the issue another way: What would it be worth to get the answers, and to never have to deal with ugly salary problems again?

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, p. 8.