Thursday, January 12, 2006

What is your salary ? - II

Note: This blog is a sequel for this blog. So read this first.

Salary is one of those sensitive pieces information that nobody wants to talk openly about. People dont even argue/disccuss philosophies and issues concerning salary or revealing of salary information. People dont even blog about such topics because it can so easily backfire. When people are young and still in undergraduate college, job and job related things are vague subjects. Manager is a designation that everybody knows, you always have this position called "software engineer". Beyond this nobody knows anything about the job industry. At that time, I heard in my relatives circle about somebody asking someone his salary and then the someone got really offended and refused to say it and then later the sombody also got really offended. I was thinking, "whats the big fuss about?" Just tell some damn number and get lost. The higher the number the better. Well! it was easier said than done. Innocence is worse than virginty , there is no chance that you may not lose it.

I think the laws of life with sub-sections like growing up, experience, maturing etc are wonderful source of enlightenment. Many people try and avoid the learnings. I tried to side-step this like the way I cut classes in college. But it doesn't work. While you can spend time outside college, you can't spend time outside life. Once you step outside the country and spend 2 years as Grad Student, your eyes open up to a whole new world around you. The locals and other students you interact with -- stun you with their maturity and sense of political correctness. You don't get to meet well-oiled corporate employees here, you only get to meet raw students who are the same age as you are and from different parts of the world. Students were from remote villages in America, who have never seen a forigner before, students came from Kenya, Spain etc. It surprised me so much that nobody asked even a single question that could be construed as an invasion of privacy. While I was stunned by many Indians who asked deeply private questions (hmm.."is she your wife" is a private question ;-)). So I went on to investigate the psycological basis for (many if not all) Indians to be so intrusive and insensitive to personal space.

I compared this to my school-kid life, where on the first day of school, students were asked their name, their father's name and his employment. This was how we were asked to introduce ourselves when we were kids. So many times I have seen kids cringing with inferiority complex, when they had to say "un employed" or "mechanic" or "Tahsildar office pune". It became worse when they had to say " I don't have a father (and upon further pressed for info about their mother)... she does domestic work" . Looking back at that, it was the first time I realized "hey! that was wrong and very bad thing for the teachers to do". The very (noble) purpose of having uniforms in school was to make sure there is no differentiation. This "introductions" vitiated that intent. Thinking back friends-circle got formed based on these introductions. Students from poorer backgrounds developed complexes. People who were perceived as rich were surrounded with friends (because they would buy chocolates for everybody in canteen). This insulted the rich kid's intelligence also because they were pursued for their father's money. While this was not always the case, you can never deny the fact that this happens in school.

The same thing happens with grades. The bad manners of scolding students publicly in the class for bad grades. Openly comparing them with other students. How does this help the student? if at all it does anything, it reduces her self-esteem and makes her develop a complex. Thinking back, looking at classmates who got yelled at by the teacher, I developed a low opinion about those classmates and thought them as people who were bad and incapable. Most of my other classmates thought they same too. They once-in-a-while talked and moved with such students as acquaintances, but thats it. Because a judgement was implicitly passed in our minds. As a result academically poor kids moved only with similar kids. In my second year at college, they stuck our first-year mark sheets in the bulletin board. Everybody's mark sheets were on the publicly viewable notice board. I have to say that incident alone directly led to a mini caste-system in our college. In my 3rd year, a lecturer read out everybody's grades during class. We were a class full of people sitting and she read out grades like she was announcing election results. While, at the time I let out a huge whistle of relief that I passed in all subjects, I didn't really think about the people who did badly. They would lose out on friends and even a decent conversation because they did badly in an unrelated field. What has friendship got to do with grades? Even if you did not judge them based on their marks, s/he would develop the perception anyway. For the people who did well in studies -- they have to live with nonsense comments like "you are a big guy.. you have no are a brilliant person". While they can't reply anything but just give out a stupid smile, the "brilliant guy" begins to worry about a dispropotionate reputation and things like "drishti" etc.

The problem why asking for personal information is bad is because, people tend to transalate that into other unconnected fields." you said your father was some General Manager, but you don't know how to eat properly with a spoon". There are things like " you get college first etc.. but you dont know how to hold a cricket bat". Then comes " you are earning so much, you dont wanna spend more on xyz, you wanna split lunch as dutch treat. Why are you so stingy". Sometimes when you think of saying "thats bloody none of your business".. then you get replies like " oh!.. he is showing if he is the only one who is the son-of-a-GM/College-first/high-salary earner"

In a new place (like a foreign country), where your experiences is not normal or is just among one of the many alternatives, Your opinions (silently or otherwise) get challenged by your friends, room mates, and sometimes even professors. Suddenly normal is wrong here. You are now standing in a neutral ground, where you tend to question your education upto that point. I think this is true for everybody who falls in the grad student-work-GC formulaic category -- while we knew that discussing job offers in the final year of education with room mates and friends were okay, we sort of knew that -- that would be it. We woudn't be able to discuss salary with the very same people two years later. Side Note: (as a result of some comments in the previous post) For a person going to US as a so-called "H1-B party" or a "H4 Party" this "realization" could happen the first time they get snubbed/ridiculed when they ask for salary information from a collegue, which invariably is another Indian. I sometimes think the direct H1-B folks from India are unfairly ridiculed by the F1 (student) -> to -> H1B (work visa) folks. While students have had a chance to make mistakes and correct themselves in a relatively secure school environment, the H1B folks get exposed in a more volatile corporate environment. That is the big (if not the only) difference. End Sidenote

One you step into a corporate environment, it is almost cast in stone that asking for salary information is bad manners. In the eyes of others it is uncivilized and reflects poor upbringing. I believe it is true to a great extent. 9 out of ten times, people ask salary for the wrong reasons. Yes! sometimes it is genuine, elders want to know how times have changed ( but then in that case they should get it from their sons/grandsons etc). I have been advised by some good friends, that I am capable of earning more and I should negotiate better. I have told some other friends that they are underpaid and they should look around for better options. These are the right reasons. But it is in minority. For two people, to exchange salary information, there should be mutual trust. Otherwise it could lead to huge problems. For example: One of my relatives was paid very well, he told his father his salary and his father told his friend whose son was working in the same company as my relative. That "son" found that he was getting paid less and argued with my relative as to why this was happening to him. So sometimes if you see someone refusing to divulge information to his own parents don't judge him so soon. A degree of closeness is also required to discuss salary. Me and my friend "Thanga Balu" have argued many times on whether it is appropriate to as for peer salary information, just to know if you are being paid on-par. I was naive then and thought this was okay. But it is wrong. It is NOT right to find out if you are being paid on-par by directly asking others. You have to work for it. You dont go to a good looking girl and ask her if she would like to go to bed with you and have sex with you --straight away. There are guys who are helping chics do groceries, walking their moms, running up astronomical restaurant/movie ticket bills, learning poems, starting and arresting gossip -- just to acheve the same objective. What do you think -- those hard working guys are idiots ? :-)

There maybe many motivations to ask for a person's salary information. Not all of them -- in fact most of them -- do not justify really asking them. 90% of the time it creates jelousy, unwanted competition even animosity. The two factors "fathers employment" and "grades" in the examples above. Remove them and replace them with "salary" and read this blog again. The results would be the same. Salary is just the same shit but goes by a different name. It causes the same problems and creates the same polarity those two factors created. To me -- asking for such salary information is like asking a guy's underwear size or a girl's cup size. There maybe 1000 reasons why you want to ask that. It maybe sexy to know even if you aren't doing anything with that info. Just don't ask it.


Nilu said...

H1 guys are annoying. There maybe reasons. But the fact remains, they are annoying. Really really annoying.

More importantly, many desis cannot hold a conversation on a neutral topic. In my opinion, that is one of the reasons why they get personal. In fact, I bet 6/10 desis won't even know who the governor of the state they are in. Seriously.(Unless the state is FL/CA, with celebriy governors)

anantha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
anantha said...

Nilu: Politics is not a topic for neutral conversation. A neutral conversation would be on a topic that neither participant would not have to be judgemental. So, that takes out politics and sports.
And, why would I need to know the governor's name? No, seriously, because its of no use to me. I'd rather work on getting to know which store in my state/city gives me the best deals.

Bengali Guy said...

Interesting. In several Scandinavian countries individual tax records are actually public. Most C-level execs of publicly traded companies must, by law, also have their compensation details public. In certain ultra competitive industries like banking, a large % of senior management compensation, especially bonuses which make up 80-90% of their income, is public knowledge come december. I allways maintained that making salaries public would actually increase productivity. There is a double standard here. If you are disclosing the CEO's salary, why arent you disclosing the salary of rank and file ? If people *want* to be jealous, they can be jealous of no particular reason at all.

Hema said...

Hello Hawkeye,

Great post. I guess companies here in UK are far more transparent in this regard. We even have websites that publishes what you ought to be paid given your experience, qualifications and the field in which you work, which i found very useful when i first landed in this country. Maybe i am unaware, but i havent often seen anyone asking me for salary details or my personal details unless i chose to disclose. I guess it has more to do with the "British natural tendency" to not to probe.

Here mostly discussions would be on Food, Culture, Dresses, Shopping deals, Sports (mostly football) and last but not the least "Weather" - the greatest obesssions that people here have, although i dont understand why. Having said that, I completely agree with you, asking for a person's salary details, their partner's sex details(which is a new trend here with civil partnerships), their family circumstances can be very very intimidating and horrible to discuss.
Now after being here so long, I find it strange when even my parents or closest friends back in India wants to know what i earn and how i live, how many cars i have etc. kind of questions...It is plainly annoying.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Hawkeye, this post made me go WOW!

You have actually captured the essence of the entire problem... wonderful post! And I identify with the problem fully --- I have been tagged this 'brilliant guy' almost all my student life, and know how it feels to get those senseless comments.

Nilu said...

aNTi: Knowing the name of governor is neither 'politics' nor is it non-neutral.Am not asking them to judge the governor. Am just saying, they don't have a clue as to where they are.

sri said...


The problem why asking for personal information is bad is because, people tend to transalate that into other unconnected fields." you said your father was some General Manager, but you don't know how to eat properly with a spoon". There are things like " you get college first etc.. but you dont know how to hold a cricket bat". Then comes " you are earning so much, you dont wanna spend more on xyz, you wanna split lunch as dutch treat. Why are you so stingy". Sometimes when you think of saying "thats bloody none of your business".. then you get replies like " oh!.. he is showing if he is the only one who is the son-of-a-GM/College-first/high-salary earner"


very true......

Radha said...

"How does this help the student? if at all it does anything, it reduces her self-esteem and makes her develop a complex."

Are you trying to level out the gender bias in English by replacing the generic pronoun 'him' by 'her'???!!!

Teju said...

hey Bharath,

This is an awesome post.

But, am a lil confused. Haven't you already posted this long time back?

Vaas said...


What do you find so annoying about H1 guys?

Nilu said...

What do you find bright, in light?

R said...

"walking their moms"

I thought they only walk the dogs!


Good read.

Cmreddy said...

Well, i am new to this blog stuff. I dont know where to post the general comments. Anyways, you should have kept the female bloggers intact in your blog.. I feel you can be critical of another blogger and vice versa.. what ya say?

Venkat Ramanan said...

Hi Bharath,
That is a great post! It was amazing to read your article and that made me think too! We are used to asking salary and more personal things about a person. This stems from the fact that we are more personal in general. A Psychology professor explained this to me as follows. There are three spheres around a person's life. personal, social and community. The personal sphere is a little wider among Indians that they expect to know "more" about you ("more" needs to be defined properly :) ). It is not considered indecent to enter a friend's kitchen or even living room in India or to go to a person's house without informing him (Almost taking that person for granted :) ), whereas (I heard from the professor) Americans don't even let good friends beyond their main hall. They expect people to inform them before going home (RSVP in invitations is mind-boggling) and some of these practices are slowly catching up here too. So, It may have got something to do with our more personal genes :))
Great article dude!


Nice thought provoking post. On a lighter (yet mathematically serious) note, I found my comparison method, which can be used to compare 2 numbers without revealing them. Two men can compare their salaries, among other things.

But of course, comparing salaries and thus causing discriminations is a bad idea. But you can't stop it, can you? In my previous workplace, it was a policy that salary is confidential and employees must not discuss this to anyone other than direct manager. But the salary info exchange was rampant and everyone knew everyone else's. That caused some good negotiations, though. So information is power, but ignorance is bliss ... :-)

c2c said...

Great article. I can't help but share your views on the baseless prejudice we hold against new H1 guys who've been so suddenly exposed to a complete alien culture and lifestyle and are expected to be "American"... I admit even I have looked down upon a few. Someone once told me that this concept does not exist among Chinese. In other words, even Chinese who've lived here for years accept and treat their new arrivals equally. And apparently, the reason is that Chinese have never recognized the superiority of Western culture and civilization. So the fact that the newly arrived Chinese do not cater to American views does not bother the established Chinese one bit. We Indians, on the other hand, aren't as proud of our heritage sometimes, and believe in being Romans when in Rome, and looking down upon non-Romans...

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective.. but as a seasoned corporate slave of 5 years, my belief is that the only reason corporate america doesn't want you to discuss your salary with your peers is so that they can get away with paying you less than you deserve and you'll never find out!