Your salary: Don’t ask, don’t tell?

April 30, 2008, 4:36 PM UTC

Did you all see “Not-So-Personal Finance” in the New York Times this weekend? It’s a story about young people sharing their salary figures with each other — which has long been considered bad professional behavior — and the generational politics of openly discussing money and other traditionally private matters. The Times writer paints the issue, er, vividly: “As Ilana Arazie, 32, an online video producer for a media company in Manhattan, said, ‘If we can talk about how many orgasms we have with our mate, why can’t we discuss how much we make?'”

Now, for the record, you’re not likely to find me talking about how many orgasms I have with my mate anywhere ever (and certainly not in the Times), but I’ve often been told I’m conservative in this respect. And maybe that’s why I might find it strategically suspect — never mind just plain icky — to do compensation roundtables with friends. Or worse yet, to post salaries on Facebook, as the title of Times article’s web page — “Sharing Salary Figures on Facebook” — seems to suggest is happening. (The story itself doesn’t include an instance of this.) It’s one thing to share that number with very close friends or mentors, but with your whole happy-hour crew or Facebook universe? Not so much.

For those of you who aren’t yet furiously writing a comment, here’s why: If you’re a recent grad or working in an industry where early-career salaries are more or less set and/or public, it makes sense to try to get as much information as you can about what you’re worth, which often means giving specifics — such as what you’re being offered for a particular job.

But once you’ve been in a gig or in an industry for a while, salaries become an increasingly sensitive topic. Why? Because the friends you’re showing your paycheck to are often your colleagues. And if you’ve all been at your careers long enough, significant differences — in how you’re compensated, your job responsibilities, and even the level of respect you get from your superiors — are bound to emerge. Mishandle these, whether by inadvertently flaunting your own success or becoming jealous of someone else’s, and you’re in for some serious professional tension.

For instance, I have a journalism friend who is constantly coming up with cute ways to ask what I make, and judging from his/her eager expression, these inquiries aren’t made in the spirit of sharing. It’s competition, pure and simple, and while I adore this person, I’m pretty sure that if I shared the information s/he wants, we’d be the Lauren and Heidi of the friend group faster than you can say “TMI.”

Of course, I also have a colleague here at Fortune whose encouragement has been invaluable when it comes to asking for raises and whatnot. But we only talk numbers on a relatively vague, need-to-know basis. Keeping these chats hypothetical keeps us close and — in a positive sort of way — competitive, since we never quite know exactly where the other stands. (Don’t believe that the taboo still exists? Check out Fortune senior writer Annie Fisher’s latest column, “Tax rebates: A clue to co-workers’ salaries,” which is all about how to use rebate time to surreptitiously figure out what your coworkers make.)

But whatever my squeamishness, I did find the Times story’s generational explanations of this behavior amusing. As with so many things, it’s all about our childhoods. chief compensation officer Bill Coleman cited Gen Yers’ affinity for teamwork as one reason why we might seek friends’ help to decipher salaries. And Barbara W. Keats, an associate professor of management at Arizona State University, says that our “relative lack of manners regarding salary can be traced to the self-esteem movement embraced by baby boomer parents.” As she puts it, “They’re special, and however they say things is very cute.”

It’s reductive, yes, but I don’t necessarily disagree. Many of us are still young enough that we haven’t yet had the chance to feel the backlash of revealing too much detail about our personal and professional lives. And it remains to be seen if there really will be one, or if corporate etiquette will adjust to us, the way that other corporate structures have. But regardless, it just seems to me that, in the average office, showing your economic hand can go either way — and the benefits don’t outweigh the consequences of oversharing, no matter how old you are.

But maybe I’m already too old to understand the rationale of these young movers and shakers. What about you?