Why Is It…?

“Why Is It…?” was designed by Dr. Steiner to address readers’ questions about human behavior from a social psychological perspective in order to inform and stimulate dialogue about the ways in which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are influenced by the presence of other people. Dr. Steiner holds a Ph.D. in Applied Social Psychology. In addition to working as a university professor over the last 15 years, she conducts individual and group consultations in matters of social relationships and behavior. Readers are invited to submit their questions anonymously in one paragraph or less to Dr. Steiner at [email protected].

Q:  Why is it that many employers tell us not to discuss our salaries with co-workers? I am curious what this is all about. It makes me think that something underhanded is going on.

A:  You are right. Many employers have policies that prohibit employees from sharing information about salaries, benefits and bonuses. And while these policies are meant to discourage this practice, it is an impossible behavior to enforce. Co-workers often spend time socializing at lunchtime, during breaks and after work – and eventually, this information is discussed during these casual interactions. But why is it a problem for employers that co-workers talk about pay? The answer lies in our perceptions of equity and involves social comparisons, motivation and job performance and satisfaction.

In order to maximize job performance, an employee must feel motivated and satisfied in their work. Factors that increase our satisfaction tend to also increase our levels of motivation and ultimate performance. One method employees use to measure how much they like their jobs involves comparing their own status and position to that of others. By doing this, we gain knowledge about our standing relative to others in terms of inputs (what we put into our jobs such as job performance, hours worked, etc.) and outcomes (what we get out of our jobs in terms of pay, promotions, recognition, etc.).

In essence, we conduct a social cost/benefit analysis. We compare what we put in to our jobs to what others put in to their jobs. If this comparison renders an equitable finding (we are not putting in more than they are), satisfaction results and our motivation is not undermined. If we learn that we are putting in more than our co-workers, we tend to feel slighted, bitter and dissatisfied – leading to a decrease in motivation and overall job performance. However, this measure of social equity also extends to the comparisons of work-related outcomes as well. Just as with inputs, we also compare what we get out of our jobs with what our co-workers receive. We then compare the inputs and outcomes to arrive at an overall picture of equity that will directly impact our attitudes and performance in positive or negative ways.

I once had a student who described a summer job she once held. “The job was so sweet. All I had to do was sit at a desk and take phone messages all day long. I could do homework or read in between phone calls. They paid me $12.00 an hour and my office was in a high rise overlooking Lake Michigan. I really had it made and loved my job! But one day, another girl was hired to do the same thing as me (the boss’s niece). She talked to her friends all day long on the phone while I frantically struggled to answer my calls and hers! She did her nails, took two-hour lunch breaks and came in late and left early. It really ticked me off. But when I learned that she was getting $20.00 an hour – that was the last straw! I was so disgusted that I quit!” This scenario perfectly exemplifies how equity comparisons work. My student had been completely satisfied with her job until she compared the inputs and outcomes with her co-worker. The very elements she was so satisfied with at first, quickly transformed into the ultimate demise of her job motivation and commitment.

Humans are painfully aware of social equity. In fact, one of the earliest social constructs children express is the perception of fairness. How many times have we heard a young child protest, “its not fair!”?  And while maturity brings the knowledge that “life isn’t always fair,” Americans expect an equitable workplace in terms of equal treatment and opportunity. Most employers are fully aware that social comparisons among employees can be lethal to worker productivity and satisfaction, especially in cases where pay scales are not based on objective and concrete criteria. And for this reason, policies may dictate that pay not be discussed. However this intentional lack of transparency only serves to promote suspicion and divisiveness. In order to maximize worker satisfaction and performance, employers should approach human resources from a standpoint of fairness – creating a climate that levels the playing field among employees. Social equity stimulates greater productivity, decreases absenteeism and turnover and makes for happier/healthier employees – avoiding the inevitable pitfalls of bitterness, resentment and demoralization. Ultimately, greater equity translates into greater profits for all concerned.