Sometimes companies in Taiwan, and elsewhere probably, will have as policy that employees can’t tell eachother their salaries. This is unethical, and depending on where you are could be illegal. Arguing about law is boring though, the ethics are more interesting.

First, the real reason a company doesn’t want you to tell your coworkers your salary is because the company benefits when this information is hidden.

A big reason is that labor value is completely detached from salaries at this point in capitalist society, so the more information people have on what people are making, the more clear that becomes, which is bad for a company.

Example: The CEO of Twitter, before it was bought by Musk, had a salary of $1,000,000 with a stock compensation of $12,000,000. A frontend engineer at Twitter could expect on average $149,000. If we’re going to argue, as capitalists often try, that dollars are an accurate measure of value (of productivity, labor, risk, etc), then that means that the CEO works 87 times harder, produces 87 times more, risks 87 times more than a frontend engineer. Do we really believe that to be true? If the engineer implements a feature that increases ad click-through and generates an increase in revenue of $100,000 year on year, the CEO would be expected to spend a similar amount of time doing something that earned for Twitter $8,700,000 year on year. “But CEOs work to generate huge influxes of cash, work with investors, I’m not a simp!” Yeah sure, I’m not trying to argue CEOs don’t do anything (though I’m pretty sure they don’t and just exist as networks of Ivy League tennis players), I’m just saying, once you know what everyone makes, you can start making calculations against revenue, and you can start saying, hey wtf, all the CEO does is sit in an air conditioned office all day, I’m out here getting billboards printed, nobody will know about our site if I don’t get these billboards printed, without me and my team technically there’s no revenue, so why do I only make $70,000 a year?

Better to avoid those questions alltogether, for a company.

Another reason is that if employees aren’t telling eachother their salaries, a company can get away with paying two people different wages for the same job.

This is a clear demonstration that currency in this case is utterly detached from outcome, that is to say, it really doesn’t matter how much money your contribution makes to the company: your salary is basically arbitrary. If you share your salary with your coworker and they find out you make more, they will likely ask for a raise. That cuts the company’s profit margins, which is bad for the company (it believes, more on that later). It also increases public knowledge of the salary someone interviewing at a company could expect, which gives them more leverage. I wrote a bit about this in my article on my job hunt out of the bootcamp, but basically, because the company can set an arbitrary rate on your labor, it behooves them to hide how much they’re willing to pay for a job so as to increase their chances of underpaying a given employee, thus increasing their profit margin. The fuzzier the math, the more pennies the company can squeeze into profit. This is why the one of my exceptions to my “sharing your salary” argument is thus: don’t share it with companies, because it takes leverage away from you. Never give your rate.

But why don’t we already tell eachother our salaries? Rationally it will lead to the best outcome for workers, right? Even from a capitalist value system, it would be a simple question of leverage: the more knowledge the laborers have about the worth of their labor, the value of the output, etc, the more leverage they have in a salary negotiation. Humans are rational actors, right? So why is this even a thing? Why don’t you go tell all your coworkers your salary, tomorrow?

I’m betting the answer isn’t “because it’s against company policy” and more like “because I’ll look like an asshole,” and I think you’re right, you kinda will look like an asshole. Why? Because you’re bragging, right? You’re trying to dick-measure? An easy general statement about shared ethics is “most people and culture value modesty.” It’s immodest to “show off” how much you make, correct?

See now THIS is a great example of the incredibly effective nature of capitalist ethics. You wanna talk about doublethink, just fully immerse yourself in the values of capitalism for a while, you’ll tie your ethical system into knots.

Consider: sharing your salary is bragging, because having a higher salary than others means you’re better than them. Why? Because you make more money! If you make more money, that means our perfect free-market system which is efficient, rational, and is a meritocracy, has acknowledged your superiority with more money. But wait, though the system has indeed identified you as a superior human by giving you more money, you can’t share this fact with others because… boasting is bad?

Hold on, in the capitalist system, good businesses should advertise that they’re good, that they’re the best at what they do. That’s the basis of marketing. Good individuals that happen to be businesses, like a plumber, no worries if they walk around saying “I’m the best plumber, you should hire me to fix your toilet.” In a job interview, absolutely you need to boast, you can brag, we just call it “marketing yourself” and “speaking about your achievements.” But somehow the buck stops at the salary. If we buy into the lie that salary equals competence, then all we should have to do when we walk into an interview and say “of the team of 4 designers, I had the highest salary.” Easy, right? And why suddenly is it bad to do that at other times? “I’m the highest paid designer on this team, so in this discussion my opinion should hold the most water. My choice is most likely to lead to the highest revenue.” Right? No?

Capitalism is happy to sell a bald-faced lie value system to achieve its means. On the one hand, salary is a good measure of worth, that’s why the CEO gets paid $13,000,000. On the other hand, it’s rude to tell others because in this case where it benefits us (the capitalist class) to hide your salary, we will temporarily adopt the values of another ethical system to achieve our means.

If you agree that you are a braggart for sharing your salary, that means you agree that people who make more money are worth more to society, or are better, or are more competent, or earn more money for a company, which according to David Graeber might in fact be the opposite of the truth. In Bullshit Jobs he extensively documents and argues how actual value to society is likely negatively correlated with salary. An easy example: average salary in New York for a teacher is $87,543. Meanwhile, an investment manager on average should expect $166,788. He goes on to show how many such jobs actually actively harm society.

It’s not like the people telling you are aware of this, there’s no grand conspiracy, this is just one of the many subtle tricks that in my opinion are an emergent and inevitable result of trying to build a society within a capitalist system. The only way you can justify a lot of this insanity is by bending your ethical systems to the breaking point.

So TLDR, saying “it’s not unethical to share your salary” isn’t enough though. Defeating the capitalist argument that it’s unethical to do so merely makes sharing your salary the equivalent to telling someone what color pants you wear tomorrow: an ethically neutral statement (probably? depends on the pants). Why is it actually ethical?

  1. Employees sharing their salaries with eachother reduces possibility of someone being underpaid for work. Example: the London engineers discovering the San Francisco engineers get paid 1.5x more despite similar costs of living because the company is exploiting arbitrarily set regional salary expectations.
  2. Sharing salaries with eachother increases general worker-level knowledge about the economics of the business, increasing possibility of noticing severe discrepancy between salaries and profits, which allows for a collective bargaining opportunity
  3. Being more open about your salary even with non-coworkers allows more transparency in general about your field, which increases leverage of others that may consider joining your company, or, those considering joining your field, such as students or people looking for a career change.
  4. Sharing salary could trigger a conversation about why it’s not unethical to do so, and push back in a small away against capitalism attempting to co-opt non-capitalist value systems for its own uses
  5. Increased information across jobs in general could help demonstrate the radically misaligned calculuations of labor value against salaries within our economies in general. Such as: teachers getting paid pennies while people who do essentialy nothing get paid $166,788.

When isn’t it good to share salary?

  1. When it’s a company asking. Never give up your leverage as a worker.
  2. When you’re doing it to hurt someone, or genuinely be a dick, or, attempt to utilize a capitalist value system of value-as-salary to make yourself appear superior to someone else

Hot take: even capitalists should stop engaging in this capitalist lie. Encourage people to share their salaries. Publish them!

Wait, but then where will the profits come from? If everyone knows everyone’s salary, if everyone can sit down with a spreadsheet and spend a night determining our exact profit margins, they’ll all demand a slice until there’s no profit margins at all!

Yes, they will, what you’re describing is a co-op, a business structure with a five-year survival rate of 90% in the USA. That sounds bad, right? No profits? Well…

Traditional businesses have a five-year survival rate of 3-5%. Public trust in credit unions, a form of banking co-op, stands at 60%, compared to 30%. Big banks have to spend millions on what are essentially capitalist psy-op marketing campaigns, credit card lines, all sorts of fun nonsense to convince people to join them instead of a credit union. A credit union can stay trim, efficient, and rest on the simple laurels of “we just aren’t that evil.” Wait, I’m slipping away from capitalist values here: remember, we don’t care about customer feelings, employee retention or happiness, the only thing that matters is revenue, and whether we get that by high customer retention through good service or by monopoly forcing them to have no other choices, both are equally ethical in a capitalist value system. So:

Worker coops have a 29% smaller chance of closure in Uruguay. In Italy, the 3 year survival rate of a worker co-op is 87%, compared to 48% for traditional businesses. France has them at 80-90% vs 66% for traditional.

Worker co-ops are more productive that conventional businesses. Damn, I can see some capitalist mouths drooling from here. Yup, “A 1995 study of worker cooperatives in the timber industry in Washington, USA found that ‘co-ops are more efficient than the principal conventional firms by between 6 and 14 percent, ‘” pdf link;