Taboo talk: Is it okay to discuss pay?

Why is everyone secretive about salaries? Join us as we talk to Lexi Clarke, Chief People Officer at Payscale to find out about the power of transparency and why we can now talk openly about money.

Lexi operates in the epicenter of compensation and salaries, so during our podcast interview, we asked her about transparency in the sector and whether it’s okay to be upfront about what we, and others, earn. Those of us who grew up in the previous generation understood that talking about money was not good behavior. However, being more open about money is the new norm when people look for and discuss new jobs. 

Emerging legislation in some states and more salary information available generally in the public domain kicks off many discussions, but Lexi tells us it’s also a generational thing. People want to figure out whether they’re getting paid enough. With millennials and Gen Z, there’s a real change being made around challenging pay secrecy and pushing for transparency.


Trends on social media show we all talk about money more often. This is part of an evolutionary process that HR and the compensation sector have been going through since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. 

But way back in the days when people didn’t talk about money, there were even pay secrecy clauses included in employment contracts. Disclosing how much you earned could lead to disciplinary action within your company—a scary thought. 

Things are different today. “We’re not only focused on compliance and the things that you’re used to HR focusing on in the past, we’re driving more transparent conversation and responding to what employees are asking for.” 

Excuse me, how much?

We’ve all done it. Applied for a job where the salary isn’t mentioned. This is changing fast. But it’s time-consuming and costly for companies to adjust to being more transparent and having those necessary conversations. Smaller companies typically feel threatened by larger companies that can price them out of the talent arena. 

Finding a place to start is an issue, and HR teams are in the process of figuring this out. They need buy-in at the executive level, though, and must educate leaders as well as employees. 

The most important thing companies can do at this stage is be honest when they don’t know the answers to all the new questions coming up. That’s a starting point leading to better transparency.

Payscale is moving fast where pay transparency is concerned, both from the employer and candidate viewpoints. They price 27 million jobs annually and help organizations to understand and think about compensation data and strategy, and how to pay their employees. Organizations can evaluate those strategies against the market. 

There’s a free online salary survey too, where jobseekers can research their worth in the market. Anyone looking for a job can go to the Payscale website, and enter information about themselves around experience, qualifications, etc. This empowers candidates to question what an employment offer should look like and ask about their value in the market. 

The website has nearly a hundred million visitors annually, and around 65 million salary profiles are on the database. This helps both prospective employees and employers have the right conversation.


Meaningful engagement at Payscale

In her role at Payscale, “doing HR in an HR company,” as she puts it, Lexi focuses on engaging employees and ensuring their experience is meaningful. This applies equally to whether they’re just starting out or they have been with the company for a while. 

“There’s a big change in the industry. People don’t stay at companies for 30+ years anymore. It’s a generational shift, which means the core job of HR people is to ensure that whatever time spent with the company is meaningful.”

Pay is, of course, a major part of the employee experience. To be a step ahead in today’s rapid and constantly changing market, it’s vital to understand it. This means you can transparently communicate your compensation strategy. It’s not always about paying the highest amount of cash because prospective employees like to consider other factors, like opportunities for growth or company culture. 

Are pay transparency laws really a thing?

Absolutely yes, Lexi tells us, and these benefit both employees and employers. States ignoring these progressive laws are shrinking their talent pool, so it’s a tactic that can’t last.

“Candidates will pursue roles where they feel they’ll be fairly compensated. They won’t waste time pursuing jobs without salary information.”

If employees have to voice a compensation expectation based on current salary initially, this allows pay gaps to persist over time. Thus, transparency laws are hugely beneficial to job seekers. They standardize pay practices and philosophies, and inequities can be corrected before job postings go live with salary information. Having these laws in place forces organizations to have a well-thought-out, data-driven approach to fair salary structure. Historically, such approaches have been reactive but are becoming far more proactive as people see the positive impact of pay transparency on job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity.

“Transparency builds an inherent trust with employees and within the organization. It’s a powerful concept.”

Transparency equals retention

Lexi outlined the findings of the recently released Payscale report on retention. Crowdsourced data was analyzed from over 578,000 US workers to find out which factors impact retention the most, and how pay transparency plays a role. Results show that candidates won’t apply for a job unless it includes a job range retention report. 

Also, it shows that pay transparency is significantly effective in retaining talent if salary ranges are shared at the job posting level. The days when people spent time filling in job application forms without knowing the pay range are over. 

Quiet quitting must hold up a mirror


The term quiet quitting became popular because companies were putting responsibility on employees to do more without compensation, benefits, or rewards. But beyond awareness, quiet quitting needs to hold a mirror up for companies says Lexi. Employers must ask how they can motivate their employees to go above and beyond. If there’s no reward, why would they?

Pre-2020, hustle culture was huge. Since the WFH revolution, that’s all changed, and workers are feeling their way toward a more satisfying work-life balance. People are reprioritizing how they spend their time, and mental health has been a huge focus. 

Quiet quitting can be linked back to that, and we saw it with the Great Resignation. Whether it’s compensation driven or not, that’s what people choose. So now, if we look at quiet quitting, that is a strong sign of disengagement at your organization.

If people aren’t motivated to go above and beyond, we need to remember it’s okay for people to set boundaries. But, if you have employees setting boundaries within their day-to-day work, you should ask them what more they need from you as a leader.

Or, if you are on the HR team, ask how they’re feeling. What made that shift? Look at compensation and incentives, and talk about flexibility. What’s a driver for them? Managers, leaders, HR teams, and communication teams should also be curious. Find out what motivates people day to day. 

Start small but start somewhere 

Pay transparency is becoming a baseline expectation of employees and candidates. If pay transparency is going to move forward, feeling confident about it is a huge part of that. 

It can feel scary if you are an HR leader and you haven’t been transparent. Knowing where to start with implementing the change can be overwhelming. The best place to start is to understand your current state by understanding the market data and how people are paid. From there, you can start small with places you can build from. 

You could start by educating people on how you make compensation decisions. And then work behind the scenes and get your house in order—the first step toward transparency. It’s okay to start small but start somewhere because these conversations aren’t going away.

Lexi reminds us that transparency is a major part of an employee experience. The more transparent you can be at different stages, the better, because the minute you extend an offer to someone, you are starting to build or break trust with that person. Every interaction you have after that is again an opportunity to build or to chip away at that trust, so don’t miss it.

“Over the last few years, we’ve had to figure out how to integrate work into our lives, and compensation is a part of that journey. Trusting your employer is a massive part of that journey, and transparency, and specifically pay transparency plays a big role.”

To keep up to date and get great snippets of information about the pay transparency journey, you can find Lexi on LinkedIn. Payscale is also on LinkedIn and Twitter and you can have a look at the Payscale website here. Check out the entire podcast here and subscribe to Cohesion Podcasts to catch upcoming sessions with industry experts!

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