Making Money Moves with Maya Lau | Crooked Media
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March 08, 2023
Work Appropriate
Making Money Moves with Maya Lau

In This Episode

In a lot of workplaces, compensation isn’t transparent— and sometimes it’s actively obscured. Leaders and managers work to implicitly and explicitly communicate that you shouldn’t talk with your coworkers about money — arguing that it’s demoralizing, or “private,” or unfair to share what you make with your coworkers. But that mindset only keeps compensation deeply inequitable. On today’s episode, Maya Lau, host and creator of Other People’s Pockets, joins Anne Helen Petersen to advise listeners on all things salary-related. When should you ask for a raise, and how? And to whom? And what do you do when you find out your coworkers make a whole lot more— or less— than you?

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Anne Helen Petersen: Hi, everyone. This is Work Appropriate. And I’m your host, Anne Helen Petersen. [music plays] If you work for the government or for a unionized job or for hourly wages, you don’t just know how much money you make. Chances are high that you know what everyone else makes, particularly if you’ve taken the time to do a very quick Google. But a whole lot of people work jobs in places where compensation isn’t transparent at all. In fact, it’s actively obscured. Leaders and managers work implicitly and explicitly to communicate that you shouldn’t talk with your coworkers about money. They argued that it’s demoralizing or private or unfair to share what you make with your coworkers, but that is some straight up manipulative workplace fuckery. And, you know, also illegal. And it only serves to protect the status quo in your workplace and your industry. That mindset keeps compensation deeply inequitable, even amongst people doing the same job at the same damn company. So for this week’s episode, about all things money and compensation, I knew I needed someone who preached the very righteous gospel of talking to anyone and everyone in your workplace, in your industry, even outside of your industry, about what they make. [music plays]


Maya Lau: My name is Maya Lau and I am the host, creator and executive producer of a podcast called Other People’s Pockets, which is a show where I ask people about how much money they make and how they feel about it and how they got there and kind of their history with money. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And similar to me. You also have a whole journalistic career that kind of led up to this point. So can you tell me a little bit about that? 


Maya Lau: I was a newspaper reporter for many years, almost a decade in traditional newspapers. I was an investigative reporter most recently at the L.A. Times. And I, you know, really loved it. Wouldn’t change a thing of what I did. But I started to just get really curious about what life was like after traditional journalism and specifically around money. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: I was [laughs] really frustrated with sort of the the ceiling that there was in newspapers. And of course, I knew going into it when I started in journalism, I knew that journalism is a sinking ship. I’m not going to make a lot of money in this. That was totally fine in my twenties. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: And as I got into my mid-thirties, I had a kid. I was married. I started to want things that I didn’t think I’d want before, like buying a house or [laughs] you know, basic life stuff. And I just started to really interrogate, like, wait, so with my skills, can I make a lot more money and be really happy too? And that started on this whole like year plus long personal reporting project where I would, you know, I would be at my job at the L.A. Times. But of course, it was during the pandemic. So we were working from home and I’d be like doing calls with random people who’d left journalism and asking them like, So what’s the deal? Like, how did you leave? How did you feel about it? And most importantly, what are you being paid now? And almost universally, all of them were like, I’m so glad I left. Like, I felt really conflicted about it. But it’s great on the other side. And I make so much more money now and or I have more freedom or whatever. So yeah, I kind of morphed into this new thing right around that time. So around 2020 ish, I started working on this podcast in the sense of like planning it out and trying to see how it could happen. And then at some point I actually it was in the beginning of 2022, I started my own company and I do financial related research for clients and that is like my own company. But then I also have my podcast, Other People’s Pockets, which I also make money off of. So yeah, I kind of just pivoted and a lot of it was really around money and pay. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I feel like there’s something very radical in the United States about asking people how much they make. Does it still feel transgressive or it’s just feel very normal and something that you want to normalize? 


Maya Lau: It can feel both. I mean, I think that for my podcast, we we screen people ahead of time. We let them know that this is what we’re going to be asking. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: And so there is a little bit of self selectivity to that. If they’re totally uncomfortable, then they’re not even going to come on my show. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. 


Maya Lau: But yeah, even for people that agreed to it, sometimes they only want to give a range of what they make or they want to talk about what they make, but they’re not okay with talking about their net worth or they’re okay talking about what they make, but not what socioeconomic class they identify as. Like there’s weird kind of things—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: —that people aren’t okay with. And having been an investigative reporter, I have a bit of practice with asking transgressive questions and I kind of you learn to kind of like asking those questions that make people go huh. [laughter] But, you know, at the same time, I really also want this to be friendly—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: —and for them to open up and feel comfortable because I don’t want it to be like, let’s get in the hot seat. And then afterwards you feel really violated and then I’m going to like, expose you. That’s not really what I’m doing. So I think that things are changing. I think that the younger someone is, the more likely they may be to talk about how much they make. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. 


Maya Lau: It’s been cool, especially to talk to people that see themselves as as really open and really radical, like people who talk a lot about sex. Like, I talked to this this person who has an open marriage and publicly has an open marriage. And, you know, you would think that is really uncomfortable. But she said it was me talking about her money that made her more uncomfortable. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Huh. 


Maya Lau: So, yeah, I think that there is kind of a movement toward talking about this more and it’s seeming a little bit less rude, but you are still poking the bear. 


Anne Helen Petersen: What do you think generally about this understanding that I think is still widely held that if you do passion work in some capacity that you should just be okay with being paid little just generally. 


Maya Lau: For me, what I really realized in my own experience was that dream jobs can be a trap. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And I had always thought, like being an investigative reporter at a major American newspaper is the dream. Like, that is what I want to be. I don’t really know what’s after that. Why would I want anything after that? And the problem with that is, I mean, it’s it is really great to go after your dream. And I think especially when you’re young, it is important to go for it and be like not as concerned about money. If that’s not something you care as much about, like it’s okay for your priorities to change over time. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: But I think that part of how the organization is paying you is in prestige and is in the sense of mission. And they’re not necessarily doing it knowingly or they wouldn’t admit to it, but they know that they’re going to get a lot of applicants because there are a lot of people that want that prestige or that sense of mission. And so I just think it’s important to know that. The problem with having a passion related job or a dream job is that it often really can disempower you from asking for more money because you feel so grateful. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: You know, you just feel like you don’t really. At some point in my career, at least, like I don’t want to always feel like, grat— I mean, of course I’m very grateful for my life and everything, but I don’t want to feel like beholden to something. Like I’m just so grateful to have this job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: I don’t want to ask for more money. I don’t want to ask for more flexibility. I don’t want to ask for my work responsibilities to change like it can be actually really disempowering. And then you kind of don’t know where to go from there because you’ve never thought about what you would ever want after your dream job. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Right. 


Maya Lau: And I felt that way too. I felt like part of why it was so hard to leave the L.A. Times or to even know that, like at some point realized, like, I don’t want to get to The New York Times. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like, I don’t even want to work there. [laughter] I would fantasize about getting laid off like I would be like, it actually be great if I got laid off. A, because maybe I could get a severance, but also everyone would understand. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And so I think that there’s there’s this sort of toxic relationship between passion, work and pay. I interviewed Adam Davidson, the economics writer podcaster, for my show, but I was also listening to him on another podcast where he said that he worked at NPR and then The New York Times and then The New Yorker. So ostensibly he went up in prestige in each of those jobs, and he went down in pay. [laughter] And so, yeah, it just shows like there’s often this, this inverse relationship and you have to be really honest with yourself and careful about that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I’ll say that you just unlocked something that I think we deal with a lot in questions to the show, which is that there are so many people who have no idea how to move on from a career. 


Maya Lau: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think it’s like you said, they had never imagined any pathway away from their dream job, right. Like it was the pinnacle. 


Maya Lau: Mm hmm, yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so once you reach the pinnacle and then you’ve been there a bit and you’re like, oh, no. Right. It’s like a career crisis— 


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —because there’s no step away or up or down that seems viable. 


Maya Lau: Yeah, yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And that’s why it’s unimaginable. 


Maya Lau: And the problem is too, like I had a lot of people around me who were maybe older and maybe from a little bit of a different generation. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: Who would like, you know, I do think that there are some people who are a generation above us who really do believe in the like. You work a job for 40 years, you know. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And they would talk about being a newspaper reporter as if it was so great, like they landed and like, isn’t it so great that we all get to do this for the rest of our lives? And so you’re kind of influenced by this idea of like, there’s something wrong with me for not—


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm. 


Maya Lau: —wanting to do this forever. And I will also say that the most important skill to have in your career in the workplace is adaptability and reinvent yourself ability. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like it’s not about being the best writer ever or being the best computer programmer ever, whatever. It’s about surprising yourself. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: And being like, you know what? I never thought I would be a, you know, insert whatever job, but now I am. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 


Maya Lau: It’s so crazy. Like, I love my dream job and now I do this and you have to have a little bit of delight. That’s kind of how I feel now— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Same, same. 


Maya Lau: —like I say, never thought I would do a podcast. I never thought I would have my own company. I had always said, like, I actually really liked having bosses. I liked having expectations and being part of a big team. And and now it’s like I’ve jumped over this fence and I’m in this. Clearing and I’m running and I’m just like, I guess I get to do this now, like it’s fun and I’m not. And it’s it’s not for everyone. And it also there’s a lot of reasons why, you know, like, for example, my husband has a full time job and health insurance that covers the family right now. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: And like that is a very important to say. I’m not saying everybody should just leave their jobs right now, but, you know, it literally is like climbing up to the mountaintop. Like once you’re there, like, guess what? There’s nothing more up there. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Now you’re just looking for the next mountain. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. This is a wonderful set up for our question. [laughter] So our first question is from Meghan, who’s looking at her paycheck, her bills, the general economy, and the math just is not working out. 


Meghan: I’m looking for some advice on asking for a raise outside of a promotion or merit increase. Our merit increases are fairly small at our company, only about 1 to 2%, depending on your performance over the past year. This year, I’ll most likely get in that 2% range based on reviews up until now. But I also turn 26 and will start needing to pay for my own health insurance. If I get this 2% increase, I’ll pretty much be breaking even and making the same as I did last year. And that’s assuming I don’t get any more new expenses for things this year. Like a lot of people, inflation is really taking a toll on personal finances and I’m hoping to start saving for some big personal goals over the next few years. A promotion is also out of the question at the moment. I feel slimy applying to other companies just to use a job offer as a bargaining tool for a promotion. Do you have any advice on how I could ask for more money or what strategy might be the best for me here? 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I feel like here on the podcast, a lot of our questions about raises are actually also asking for recognition of performance and broader duties that they’re performing. 


Maya Lau: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But this person is just like, no, I really, I need more money. What advice would you give her at this point? 


Maya Lau: So first it’s good to do a lot of research or what we journalists might call reporting on the the basics and like what the numbers should be. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: A lot of women tend to ask other women at their company, what do you make or what should I ask for? And that’s totally fine. Women tend to be more comfortable with other women. But it’s what’s really important is that you ask white men what they’re getting paid. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: So that could include white men at your company. It could include white men who’ve left your company. And they might be easier to ask because they don’t care, like they—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: —don’t even work there anymore. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Totally. 


Maya Lau: Or, you know, finding white men on LinkedIn who work in your field and who seem to do a job similar to yours or who would know, like what the wages would be. And you reach out to them. And just like in reporting a story, you’ve got to talk to a lot of people. So ideally you talk to, I don’t know, at least five people. If you don’t feel comfortable just saying hi, what do you make? [laughter] Which you can totally do. But I would say something like this, hey, you know, I am doing some personal research on my pay and what I should be paid at my job and can I tell you what I make and then you can tell me if that sounds correct, if that sounds in line with the rates that you’re aware of, I’m not sure whether you’re you’re okay telling me what you make, but I would just it would be really helpful for me to make sure that I’m getting paid fairly. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And oftentimes they will say, Oh, well, I’ll just tell you what I make or what I made when I was at your job or whatever. It’s just good to get that info. And I also just need to say that Glassdoor, you know, that website where you can look up companies and what other people supposedly make at those companies is often wildly inaccurate. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Maya Lau: Like do not trust that— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Do not trust Glassdoor. [laughs]


Maya Lau: This is not the kind of research you can do online. Often. It really is like actual, like talking to people. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: So that’s important. And I think that that’s important because the more you talk to people, the more you’ll feel empowered to go ask for the raise because it won’t feel like, oh, like I’m just really out of my depth and like, oh, can I, you know, asked for that, you’ll feel like, no, look, I’ve talked to ten people. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: And I know my shit. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: I mean, I really think that it’s okay to ask for a raise at any time, including before a year is up since your last raise. Like, I think it’s fine, but I think if you want, you could do some research at your company first to see, like, how does this company work in terms of budgets? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: Like sometimes you want to ask at the beginning of the fiscal year or the end or I don’t know, like you might do that just to know, like strategically, oh, this is when they’re going to feel like they have more money and but this is when they’re going to the company is going to feel tight. So but yeah, I think that you can say I have done my research on what my role should be paid and it should be X and by the way, you should sprinkle in with like and, you know, the thing is like, I really love working here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yup. 


Maya Lau: And I’m really excited to come to work every day. And I hope that it’s been clear from the quality of my work, you know, what I’m do— It shouldn’t be like a negative, like I’m being underpaid. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: But then it’s also the listener mentioned inflation, and I think it’s also totally fair to say and based on inflation, like just to keep up with basic cost of living, X percent increase is reasonable. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And I think any company is looking at inflation and has been they’re looking at their knowing that employees are going to ask for more. They know their vendors are going to ask for more, like it’s an open conversation. So I don’t think it’s weird to just be like, listen, this is the reality of the situation. And again, tying in that, the quality of your work, you know, merits an increase. And then in terms of like I think she said, like she feels slimy going out and finding other offers, I mean—


Anne Helen Petersen: No, don’t feel slimy. 


Maya Lau: Yeah, I mean it like don’t feel slimy. It is really annoying because it can take a long time and it takes a lot of energy away from your job. But I think it is part of the game. I think it’s something you have to just do. I think you can also bluff a little bit. Like I’ve had times where another job is interested in me and maybe we haven’t gone through the whole process and I haven’t gotten an offer, but I’ll let my employer know like, hey, I was reached out to by this company and you know, I’m talking to them and you can use that as well. And you can say, look, I don’t want to spend a bunch of time like, do you want my energy to go to finding other work? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah right. 


Maya Lau: Like I want to work here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: But I feel like I still have not gotten a raise in X amount of time. And so I feel a little bit like forced to, to go spend my time looking for another job. Like, is that you know, is that what you want? Like, I think that you could bring that up, but best of luck. It is hard. [laughter] You know.


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. No and I think that advice though, to really seek out to just know where you are in the larger band of people who are doing your job across, you know, your industry is really, really useful. 


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I will say I actually had an experience at my previous employer where we had been banded and like, you know, you had these different names and the different names meant different things and like senior writer two or whatever, and both my partner and I had been promoted to a certain level, but because he was my partner, I knew exactly—


Maya Lau: Hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —what he was making and it was significantly more than I was. 


Maya Lau: Woah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And so I was able to bring that to my manager and be like, uh, he’s making $10,000 more than me. How do we rectify that? Right? Because—


Maya Lau: What did your manager say? 


Anne Helen Petersen: They did it. [laughs]


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: They were like, you got us. [laughs]


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But, and I and I also told people, other people at the organization about that story because, you know, the banding had been put in place as a means to protect against unionization efforts and against people, you know, trying to be more transparent with salary. So if that’s the goal, then, I mean, you can’t have those sorts of discrepancies—


Maya Lau: Right, right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —happening. And I think that the more that people do that within an organization and again, not just people of the same gender or of the same race. Like, you have to be willing to share it with people who have different identities with you to try to increase that sort of equity. 


Maya Lau: Yeah, bring the receipts if you can, you know— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah. 


Maya Lau: —like show evidence. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And you can do that in a non-hostile way. 


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Receipts don’t have to be hostile. [laughs]


Maya Lau: Right. And I think it’s good to maybe research who is the best person to ask? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like, sometimes your manager is actually pretty low down the food chain. And when they go to ask their manager, it’s just really easy to brush it off. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: But if you go to the CEO or if you go to, you know, somebody who’s in a more powerful position, you know, I feel like honestly, usually that’s not considered going above someone’s head in a bad way because like, frankly, again, everyone’s dynamics are different. But frankly, like your manager who might be lower down, will be relieved that they don’t have to deal with this [laughs] like that because they they probably don’t control the budget. So. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. 


Maya Lau: Making sure to strategize like who is the best person to go to, who has cachet, who does control the budget, who’s somebody who I can go to and get this done. I think that that’s also really important. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, absolutely. So our next question is related to Meghan’s question. Let’s hear from Ryan. 


Ryan: In order to get a promotion in my workplace, I already have to be doing all the things I’d be expected to do in the new role. How do I push back against an expectation to do work entirely beyond my pay grade in order to get a raise? Do I have to threaten them with an external offer to get them to see my value before I check every box? 


Anne Helen Petersen: So I just actually was talking with someone who is expected to do this right now. 


Maya Lau: Mm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like their managers manager said, well, if that person wants that role, they should start doing that role and then we’ll see if they’re a good fit for it. Right. And that’s you know, that can mean six months, a year or more of uncompensated labor to just try out for the role. What do you think of that? 


Maya Lau: [laughs] I definitely think that that’s pretty fucked up if you’re in that situation and this is just where you find your find yourself right now and you need to deal with it. I think that it’s always good to really think about, does my boss actually know what I’m doing? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm, yeah. 


Maya Lau: Because sometimes bosses, you know, they’re managing lots of people. They don’t really know what’s going on and they don’t really know what you do every day. And the way that you measure productivity is very vague. So I think it’s kind of like you have to kind of make it your job not to give this person another job, but like in order to work smarter, not harder, you have to make sure your boss knows all the things you’re doing. If you wanted, you could give them like a Friday memo that’s like, I just want to let you know, here’s all the things I did this week. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: Or I have this folder in my emails that’s just called nice emails, there’s like a label that I can put on my emails in Gmail whenever I get a nice email. Anything complimenting my work. Anything like a nice tweet or like, you know, back when I was a reporter, like, I love this article, whatever, and I keep that. And periodically, or even when they come in, I would forward them to my boss and just say, look at this nice reader email I got. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: And it’s not necessarily just about you, it’s about the team. Like, look, we worked on this story together, like we got this nice email because they’re not going to know that you got that unless you send it to them. And so just regularly, kind of without being too cloying or annoying, like just making sure that they know how well you’re doing. And then there’s just strategies for keeping certain projects top of mind that are helpful to the boss, even if they’re not really what you want to be doing. And again, this is all super annoying. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: But like, like in reporting, like you as a reporter always want to work on like the big, like fun long term project that’s going to take months and months. But your boss kind of needs like regular stories that they can pop into the paper this weekend. So like you kind of it’s like cooking, like you kind of have to keep like something on the front burner so that like whenever your boss asks for that, you’re like, oh, well, I actually have this other story I’ve been working on that will help you as you’re working on the other stuff. So kind of just like, you know, you always have to like, serve up like something they want and then asking like so few people are ever asked, like, what would be helpful to you? Is there anything that like, I can do in my work that would be helpful to you? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: Again, I know that all this could be read as like, you just have to, like, do even more— [laughter]


Anne Helen Petersen: Like, slightly manipulate your manager, but that is—


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —that’s what this is, is managing up, right your—


Maya Lau: Yep it’s managing up. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And then hopefully you. Won’t have to do that forever, because that is not just how it should be. That like you always have to take on two jobs before you can even get a promotion or a raise. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like that is not how it should be. But if that is the situation you’re in now, like those are just things I would be thinking about. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, you know, the way that this person describes it, it really sounds like this is just like the status quo at the organization that, like everyone expands their job before they get the job. 


Maya Lau: Mm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And you can decide, okay, I’m going to frickin suffer through this because either my manager is obstinate enough or the organization as a whole is obstinate enough that any way that I try to push back on this is going to go poorly for me. And then. You manage up in interesting and compelling ways and you kind of bear—


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —with it for a little while and then perpetuates the status quo in ways that, like sometimes people don’t have the wherewithal to push against the status quo at a given point in time at the organization. And I get that. You could also think, okay, how can I try to say to point this out, to point out in like a way that won’t get me fired, that this is not a great way for us to do business in this organization. And I could say, you know, what about a trial period where I take on all of these responsibilities and am paid as if I have this promotion, and in six months we reevaluate. 


Maya Lau: Yes, exactly. There should be a reevaluation period. It shouldn’t just be. Oh, I guess at some point, like for the past two years, I’ve been also doing this job. It should be— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: We need to meet up and see how this is going. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And yeah, and again, that goes to like your manager might not keep track of those things. So you need to make sure that those get on the calendar. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. Like you make an alarm. [laughs]


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: In your inbox, it’s like, okay, it has been six months. And so I think either of those could be strategies. And again, so much of this is, you know, very contingent upon the type of organization that someone is working for. 


Maya Lau: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And especially like startups or young organizations, they don’t really know what the status quo is still in flux. 


Maya Lau: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. Like, a lot of things are just being thrown at the wall. A lot of times managers, like you said, are managing too many people don’t really know what they’re doing. Maybe they want that relief of like, oh, yeah, let’s do a six month probationary period and I can figure out how to get you paid a little bit more. Or maybe this is a very old organization where they’re incredibly resistant to change and this is going to get you nowhere. So then you manage up. 


Maya Lau: Right. 




Anne Helen Petersen: Our next question is the very definition of transparency. Candace wrote in with this, and our producer, Melody, is going to read it. 


Candace: My career thus far, approximately nine years, has been working at various nonprofits. I recently left one nonprofit job of three years at a wish granting organization for kids with critical illness to take another nonprofit job as a social worker for adults with disabilities and elderly people. The main reason for leaving the previous job was burnout and low pay about $40,000 a year. I now make $50,000 a year. I am a firm believer it is good for coworkers to discuss pay as it gives us employees more leverage in negotiations. I have only discussed pay at the new company with my mentor there, as we seem very like minded and it came up in one of our conversations. She took this job straight out of college and is being paid $42,000 a year. We are approaching review and raises time and in a one on one meeting with my supervisor. I was told I am not allowed to discuss wages or raises with coworkers as it is not a large nonprofit and quote, “Budgets are tight” and quote, “We want everyone to feel equal.” Not sure if everyone was told this as they are about to start determining raises or if I was told because they somehow found out I had discussed wages with my mentor and encouraged her to ask for more. Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable about being told I cannot discuss wages with my coworkers? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Maya, what do you think? 


Maya Lau: No, you are not wrong to feel weird about that. So I should preface this by saying I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice, but anyone can google the National Labor Relations Act and right of employees to discuss wages. The National Labor Relations Act. So this is in the U.S. It protects the rights of employees to discuss their wages and—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: —working conditions, even if they have a confidentiality clause in their contract and even if they’re not in a union. It also says their policies that specifically prohibit the discussion of wages are unlawful. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: So if I had been in that conversation or if I were to be in that conversation again with that supervisor who says, you know, we don’t we don’t it’s not okay to discuss wages here. I would just playfully say, isn’t that illegal? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Uh huh. [laughs] 


Maya Lau: And, you know, because you’re not like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: —this is illegal, I’m going to bring a lawsuit. But you’re you’re just like putting them on the spot. Like, isn’t that illegal? Be interesting what they say. Like, oh, I don’t. They’ll probably go look it up. They’ll probably realize that they can’t tell people that and that it is illegal. [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: And yeah, I think that, you know, this is a huge part of why I’m doing other people’s pockets. It’s it’s a huge part of, I think, what needs to change, which is the secrecy around pay. Like who does it benefit? It benefits employers by and large. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: It benefits them when people don’t know what other people make. And it’s all just under the covers and we can all pretend that we’re a family. And it’s so interesting that the supervisor said, like, we want everyone to feel equal like— [laughs]


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, my God. Yeah—


Maya Lau: Like— 


Anne Helen Petersen: —this to me, it’s like classic nonprofit, not doing—


Maya Lau: Yeah, yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: —the work to actually create equity, like especially since, like [laughs] you know, this is the thing, not with this specific person’s nonprofit, but so many of these non-profits are like, we’re dedicated to equity and social justice. 


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And then will not— 


Maya Lau: We replicate the same problems—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: —that we are supposedly trying to eradicate. Yeah, I mean. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: Yeah, it’s just total bullshit. And a lot of that is like ingrained in those cultures sometimes of like, oh well, this is just how it’s always been. And you know, I had to suffer through this and like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: I think that you should feel empowered to discuss this with your coworkers and any boss who who tells you you can’t, you should, you know, playfully poke at them about how that’s like, where does it say that? Could you point me to the policy? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: Because I’m pretty sure that’s illegal. And yeah, I think the more we do talk about wages, the more likely it is that people can get paid more. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, and I think like any pushback of like this isn’t nice to talk about money. 


Maya Lau: Mm, mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Like that is white bourgeois bullshit, right? 


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: That like, it’s somehow not nice to talk with other people about what you make— 


Maya Lau: Or we’re family—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right— 


Maya Lau: —like the whole like when we unionized the L.A. Times, like, we got all this training on, like, the classic things that companies say to try to get workers to not unionize. And it’s. Well, but we’re a family here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: And like, we don’t really need a union because we’re already a family. And like, we just want everyone to sort of feel it’s so I feel a lot of that in the whole, like we want everyone to feel equal. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: But like if you’re not equal [laughs] then you can’t feel equal just because you have ignorance. And like, frankly, we’re all very smart people who work here. And, you know, you you hire smart people you’re going to get people who ask questions. I’m sorry. So. [laughs] Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. So I would commend this this question asker for her dedication to pay transparency, ask her to push back if they say that again and keep telling people what she makes and keep encouraging her mentor to to push for more because she deserves it. 


Maya Lau: Yes, absolutely. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Our last question is about what to do after the transparency comes [laughter] this is from Valerie. 


Valerie: I’m the director of a research center at a public university. We’re part of the university, but operate like our own organization and are fully grant funded. When I took the job, the organization was on desperate times and nearing extinction. The dean offered me a salary of over $100,000 to take the job. It’s been the most stressful experience of my life, but we have stabilized a bit. As director I’ve now seen everyone’s salaries, I’m the only one making more than $70,000, and some employees are making 35 to $40,000. Several folks have asked for raises but there is not a dollar to spare in our budget. I’m considering taking a pay cut to support these raises. I don’t know how to talk to my boss, the dean, about this. Is it a terrible career move to ask to lower my own salary? I don’t know that I’d be willing to do this job for less money. I think I might quit if I had to carry all of this stress for, say, $70,000. How do I live with the fact that I make way more money than everyone else on my team? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Oh, my gosh this question. This is like—


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —this question is just everything about—


Maya Lau: Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: —nonprofits and higher ed all wrapped into one, right? 


Maya Lau: Yes, yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And passion work. So I guess she helpfully broke it down into three questions for us. So let’s we can kind of try to parse this. Is it a terrible career move [laughs] to ask to lower her salary? What do you think? 


Maya Lau: Oh, gosh. [laughs] My initial instinct is you should not lower your own salary. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Same. 


Maya Lau: I could understand if maybe temporarily, you did it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: For just the express purpose of giving some of that money to people who desperately need a raise. If I did that, I might make it public in some way or public within the organization. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like, I wouldn’t just be a martyr and then no one knows. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Right. 


Maya Lau: And, you know, and you wouldn’t want it to just be permanent. Like, oh, well, now I’m down to I forget what she said—


Anne Helen Petersen: Like she was [both speaking] thinking of like down to the 70k range. 


Maya Lau: Down to 70, no, no, not down to 70. So she makes 108. So like, I don’t know, maybe go down to 100 or something, but not, but not so low because you don’t know. Maybe that’ll last forever. Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: But that’s even not going to add that much to the other people’s salaries. 


Maya Lau: It’s not, it’s not. And I think that the big thing is this like the scarcity mentality or the scarcity reality. You know, I think that this is a an issue of. So she says it’s grant funded. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: Like, I guess you need more grants. I mean, there needs to be a conversation with the dean or whoever’s in charge about like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Scope. 


Maya Lau: —the pie needs to grow bigger. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: This is not we can’t keep just working with what we have. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: And so, yeah, I realize that that’s harder than, you know, a corporation where, like, we can just try to make more money this year. You know, nonprofits are similar. Like we need to make a push, a development push this year. We need to ask for different kinds of grants from different kinds of people to make more money. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: I’ve never been a manager and I’ve never been in that position where, like, I can see everyone’s salaries and they can’t see each other’s. And yeah, that would be really hard to feel like I have this knowledge and I go home every day knowing that I make so much more than my the people I work with. I would just think too about like, who else are you potentially shortchanging if you take less salary—


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: —like yourself [both speaking] yeah. Right. Like yourself, your kids, if you have them, you know, thinking about your retirement and how money compounds. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Mm hmm. 


Maya Lau: And like that is money that you’re taking out of the pot. Now, that might not seem like a lot, but like that money compounded over however many decades is that’s money for your kids education or for your own retirement, for your own stability. So I’m not saying just be totally selfish, but just like there’s there’s a lot of different people that are affected by this. Man. I mean, it just it sounds like that really sucks, but there’s got to be a way to get more creative about raising more money. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I would say that like the thinking that somehow the work that this person is doing is not $107,000 a year work is also devaluing—


Maya Lau: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —her own labor. Right. 


Maya Lau: Yeah. Because she’s the director. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —she rescued an organization [laughs] from death. 


Maya Lau: Right. Right.


Anne Helen Petersen: And that is what she said. That was the most stressful time of my life. Like all of that, that is wear on the body, like it is worth that amount of money. Just because other people aren’t getting paid a fair wage doesn’t mean that you aren’t either. Does that make sense? 


Maya Lau: Yeah. I mean, I think the pay rates are set. I’m not saying that they’ve been set fairly at this organization, but in general, like if you take on more responsibility. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Maya Lau: And if your face is on something more and you’ve taken on actual risk or like, yeah, if if she’s taken on the responsibility of righting this ship like—


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: —yeah, that is why you’re getting paid more. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: So don’t feel bad about that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, I my other advice, I think, and this is what is really hard to hear and something we talk about a lot with nonprofits is that if you can’t do your current scope of work and also pay people a living wage, which it sounds like 30 to $40,000 is depending on the city is a difficult wage for someone, especially if they’re single. Right. That would be a difficult wage for them to live on. So if you can’t do the scope of work that you have and have as many people employed as you do. 


Maya Lau: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: I think sometimes people say, let’s keep doing the same amount of scope. Let’s get we’ll lay one person off and then other people get more money. But that means that there’s more work, an unsustainable amount of work for the people that remain. So if more grant money is not possible, if you can’t make the pie bigger for whatever reason, then I think you have to make the scope smaller and also think about a head count and think about like, okay, if this is what we’re going to do, how do we make this a good job, a well-paying job for more people. 


Maya Lau: Right. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Then that might involve lowering the number of people on your team, but you also have to lower the scope if you do that [laughter] at the same time. 


Maya Lau: So you’re just telling her to fire people? 


Anne Helen Petersen: I mean, like [laughter] but also—


Maya Lau: Yeah. I mean, I think there there needs to be discussion about like, something’s not working here. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes this is unsustainable.


Maya Lau: This business model is what, not working? 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah. 


Maya Lau: So we need to rethink what we’re doing here. Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: And that would would require an organization within higher ed understanding themselves as a business. 


Maya Lau: Yes. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Which they very rarely do. [laughs] But that sort of reckoning is, I think, what’s necessary here. Not taking a pay cut on the part of this director who has essentially sacrificed herself for the last few years to right the ship, as you said. 


Maya Lau: Right. I totally agree. [laughter] But, yeah, all all of these scenarios are very difficult. And it’s like there’s no easy solution. 


Anne Helen Petersen: No. 


Maya Lau: So I just I feel for all these people for sure. It’s not like, oh, well, you just do step A and step B, like, this is a screwed up situation that a lot of people are in and it’s not their fault. 


Anne Helen Petersen: And I think a lot of people just live with the feeling of like, something’s off here. I want more or it’s not fair. And they don’t try to do something about it. They just live with that feeling of unease or guilt or lack. And one thing I hope that listening to your podcast and talking more today about it too, just encourages people to talk more openly about these things that I think really keep people up at night. 


Maya Lau: Yeah, and I think that that’s also just why it’s important to talk to people outside of your industry or like who maybe left your industry for more perspective. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: Because I know within newspaper journalists, I’m sure it’s true within the nonprofit world, there is this like men in the trenches thing and it’s like, okay, well, we’re all in here suffering together and we all feel like we’re all being screwed over. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: Like, isn’t that how life is? And it’s like, ooh, that is not those are not the people you should be talking to. Like, don’t normalize that. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yep. 


Maya Lau: Like, just do a check in of like, when was the last time you talked to somebody maybe who’s left or like, somebody who who’s never worked in your field about, is this normal? Like my chiropractor once said, like, I came in, I was like, you know, I honestly feel really fine. Like, I don’t really know why I’m coming in. You’re probably gonna tell me that I don’t need to be here. And he adjusted me and he was like, you’re extremely stiff. [laughs] And I was like, that’s so weird. I don’t really feel that way. And he was like, I have people come in my office who are like, hunched over, who like, are totally messed up, and they tell me that they feel fine. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Right. 


Maya Lau: And the body can get really used to the body can really adapt to, to not doing well. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes. 


Maya Lau: And you feel like, oh yeah, this is normal. And it’s like it’s not normal. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughter] Yes. 


Maya Lau: So I think just yeah, feeling more empowered to speak up and to have those outside inputs really helps, you know, so that you don’t feel like you’re like the one person here who you know, wants more. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I, you know, a couple of episodes ago we talked a lot about unions and how important it is to talk to other people at your organization about how you’re feeling about things. But I think you’re right too, that sometimes those other people at the organization can be like, you know, they’re also hunched over and they’re also like—


Maya Lau: Yeah. 


Anne Helen Petersen: —I’m fine. I feel no pain. And so sometimes the perspective of people who have either left your specific organization. 


Maya Lau: Mm hmm. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Or people who have left your industry can be incredibly valuable. And don’t be afraid to—


Maya Lau: Or have never been in it. 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yes, yes. [laughs]


Maya Lau: We’re like, what is this world in which you like— 


Anne Helen Petersen: Yeah you’re like this is not normal. 


Maya Lau: —can’t get an inflationary increase. Like, that’s not normal. Yeah.


Anne Helen Petersen: Not normal. [laughs] Well, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me. Where can people find you if they want to hear more from you? 


Maya Lau: Yeah. So check out my podcast. Other People’s Pockets wherever you find podcasts. I’m on Twitter @mayalau, M A Y A L A U. And on Instagram on @itsmayamoney and yeah, I’m around. 


Anne Helen Petersen: [laughs] Thank you again. 


Maya Lau: Yeah. Thank you so much. [music plays]


Anne Helen Petersen: Thanks for listening to Work Appropriate. If you’ve got a workplace quandary, you need help figuring out. Get in touch. Some episodes we’re working on include issues around meeting culture and another My Industry is Broken addition, this time on nonprofits. You can find submission guidelines at or send a voice memo with your question to Work Appropriate at Don’t forget to follow us @CrookedMedia on Instagram and Twitter for more original content hosts takeovers and other community events. You can follow me on Twitter @AnneHelen or on Instagram @AnneHelenPetersen. And you can sign up for my newsletter Culture Study And if you’re as opinionated as we are, consider dropping us a review. Work Appropriate is a Crooked Media production. I’m Anne Helen Petersen, your host. Our executive producers are Kendra James and Sandy Girard. Melody Rowell is our producer and editor. Alison Falzetta is our development producer. Music is composed by Chanell Crichlow. Additional production support from Ari Schwartz and a special thanks to Katie Long and Sarah Geismer. Join us next week for a very special edition of Work Appropriate recorded live in Austin, Texas.