Blog Post

Discussing Pay in the Workplace

So I quit my job last week. As is the practice at most companies, I had to complete an exit interview. Since my former employer was rather geographically distributed and there were no human resources staff in my office, my exit interview was on paper instead of face-to-face. I liked this much better because I had more time to think through my answers instead of coming up with them on the spot.

The questions were pretty standard. Why are you leaving? What did you like best? What did you like least? What are your suggestions for improving this position in the future? Would you work here again? Nothing I wasn’t expecting, until I got to this one set:

Give us your comments about the pay for your job relative to:
– Employees in the same job here.
– Employees in other jobs here.
– Employees in the same job at other companies.

Exit SignThis threw me for a loop. I’ve always considered it to be in poor taste to discuss pay with co-workers, so I’ve never brought it up. Similarly I’ve never had anyone initiate such a conversation with me. Pay has always seemed like a taboo subject, and yet the questions asked were worded as if they assumed I knew what my co-workers were making.

Perhaps the only question of the three I really have access to an answer for is the final one, as there are plenty of websites that aggregate pay information based on job title, location, and experience. Paul Randal (blog | @PaulRandal) recently posted the results of a survey that offered an idea of what one should expect to be earning. My best guess about why they might have asked that question is that people tend to leave due to their pay (or lack thereof).

If anyone has thoughts on the subject of discussing pay in the workplace or similar exit interview questions, I’d love to hear from you! As for why I left and where I’m headed, I’ll have a few posts on those topics in the coming weeks.

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By Bob Pusateri

Bob Pusateri is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP, Microsoft Certified Master of SQL Server, speaker, blogger, volunteer, and author who loves finding new and exciting ways to break and fix things. He works as a consultant and architect, specializing in data, virtualization, and cloud technologies.


  • Wow, I’ve never seen that asked either, but I’m guessing they’re asking because it might be a major factor in you leaving. Putting that question as a part of the exit interview lets them ask the question without making a counteroffer. Say you’re a really bad employee – they might still want to know whether they were underpaying you, even if they don’t want to make a counteroffer.

    • Bob Pusateri

      Excellent point! That is a rather passive way to do it. I’ve had other exit interviews where they were much more up front and asked questions like “Can more money persuade you to stay?” I’ve never really liked playing the counteroffer game though, because more money usually doesn’t fix whatever made me want to leave in the first place.

  • dmmaxwell

    I find that when a company focuses too much on the number (salary), then there’s usually something missing elsewhere. When I discuss this with past, current or future employers, I maintain that pay is irrelevant, but compensation is key. Compensation, in this case, being salary as well as benefits, vacation time, training, tools budget or other things. I’ve often negotiated lower pay in exchange for those. I’ve also turned down very princely salaries due to a lack of those same things. That has come up frequently in my exit interviews I’ve participated in. In fact, it was the main reason for my leaving a previous employer. The pay was great, but the benefits program was gutted.

  • I’ve only had two employers in the past 13 years, but both of them forbade the discussion of pay and threatened termination for doing so.

    I thought that was commonplace.

    • Bob Pusateri

      Interesting. I’ve never seen anything expressly forbidding talk about pay before. To me that just says they have a lot of things to hide…

    • My jobs have had similar policies and I have seen them enforced. It’s just something to be avoided, because it can cause bad blood and resentment with your co-workers. One of my earliest experiences saw this happen when an IT tech with permissions to look at the budget for the department and made a fuss. Leaving aside the problems with his ability to gain access, the fact is that once he had the knowledge of his pay in comparison to his co-workers, it caused friction within the team to the point where he was ultimately terminated.

      • Bob Pusateri

        I could see that being exactly a reason why pay information shouldn’t be released, but as far as people acting on that knowledge I think that’s a personality issue. I expect that my co-workers get paid more than I do and would play dumb even if I did know, but that’s just me. Thanks for reading!

  • How do you expect these companies to be able to take advantage of people who will settle for less if salary is an open topic? They need the silence for their bottom line. (yes, this is a troll mixed with a bit of truth.)

  • I think I had similar questions on my most recent interview. At first, I would think that question 2 was to gather whether or not you and other employees discuss pay in the workplace. But then again, that may just be me being paranoid about ‘big brother’ and all. But if you happen to be in a management role where you know your pay along with subordinates, for example, then the pay scale may be known, and opinions of the scale can be commented on. I do think, however, the question is to gauge how an individual feels about pay and how important they feel pay is as part of a job. If the HR group makes use of the information for improvement, then good comments may add value to company that unfortunately will not help you unless you do return in the future… My two and half cents…

    • Bob Pusateri

      And for that reason I always make sure to speak my mind during an exit interview. I figure if they care enough to ask, I’ll be happy to give an answer. Thanks Jason!

  • The issue came up for me with counter-offers. When I have left companies, however, the issue that caused me to look were never pay, but significnt issues with bad management or work-life balance issues that I raised but were never addressed. As I reached the senior levels of technology with no desire to move to management, pay above a certain threshold became less relevant. A 1 or 2 % pay bump would not keep me around if I was otherwise unhappy.

    I understnd why management would want to ask about pay but they sure need to pay attention to the other issues as well.

  • I’ve never had an exit interview, but that question seems oddly phrased. Usually, I feel like HR questions have a clear “this is what I want to hear” answer, but I don’t know what this one would be. Do they want to hear you complain about pay, as it at best means you’re greedy and at worst is an issue with an obvious fix? Or do they want to hear that you have no idea, as employees don’t discuss salaries amongst themselves? Or that your salary is fine and competitive and your reasons for leaving are more personal?
    Regardless of motive, salaries are fairly sensitive, non-discussed issues in America, so seeing a question like that is fairly jolting.

    • Bob Pusateri

      Agreed! I’m not sure what they wanted to hear here, but I’ve never been a fan of giving the desired/expected answers to a question anyway.

  • Geoff Hiten (SQLCraftsman)

    I have stayed once for a counteroffer. Left within 90 days. If you are ready to go, then go. Inadequate pay is just one symptom of why you are at the wrong place.

    I have also gone to an employer and flat out asked for more money. I wanted to stay, but they were behind the pay curve. Did get what I needed and stayed for a while.

    I can see both sides of the pay issue, but there is no great answer. I think keeping pay private from co-workers is the least bad way to handle things. The other extreme is published pay rates such as GSA or union shops. Not a fan of that either as it tends to treat everone equally based on easily measured criteria such as seniority or education and not actual productivity or value to the company.

    • Bob Pusateri

      Very true about the published pay. Having previously worked in the public sector, it was always weird knowing that my pay (along with all my co-workers’) would be printed in the local newspaper annually. Thanks for reading!

  • Interesting. I don’t know about exit interviews, since I’ve effectively been working for the same company for 10 years (2 changes in the management, and numerous changes in role). However, generally pay isn’t discussed, though I think that’s partly ‘Britishness’.

    However, we do have staff satisfaction surveys that we do every 6-9 months. These do include questions on ‘Are you happy with your salary’ and ‘Do you consider yourself well paid, in comparison with others at ?’. These are anonymous, and the results are published for all to see.

    Having said that, I’m actually happy to not know what people are paid. There are enough things in life to stress about, rather than worrying about pay. If I was looking to move, it wouldn’t be specifically due to pay.

    Good luck in the new role!

    • Bob Pusateri

      Nick –

      I like the survey idea. I’ve yet to work somewhere that done something like that. It seems every place has annual reviews where they ask if you’re happy, but that’s definitely not anonymous. I totally agree there’s way more to a job than the pay. Thanks for reading!

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