Career Advice, Salary Transparency

How to Pivot If A Colleague Asks “How Much Money Do You Make?”

No one likes to be put on the spot about something as personal as their salary, especially by a nosy colleague. While asking someone about how much they’re paid isn’t as much of a social faux pas as asking how much they weight, it can still make many people uncomfortable, and a topic that should be danced around delicately. So what do you do if a colleague asks you forthright what your salary is? Here are a few replies you can try out to gently diffuse the situation, and avoid disclosing information you’d rather not share without hurting anyone’s feelings.

“Not nearly enough to fund my chocolate habit, that’s for sure!”

Using humor to diffuse tension can allow you to quickly pivot away from nosy questions. It also sends a preliminary signal that you’re not interested in answering – which hopefully your colleague will pick up on, and drop it.

“Don’t you know there’s a website for those kinds of questions?”

Glassdoor can tell your colleague the information they’re looking for – without them finding out the personal details of what your exact salary is. Your colleague might be genuinely curious about what a typical salary is for someone is in your position, in which case you can show them a resource to find out instead of disclosing the specifics of yours.  

“If you’ll forgive me for not answering that, I’ll forgive you for asking it.”

This response comes from etiquette coach Marry Miller’s book Class Acts: How Good Manners Create Good Relationships and Good Relationships Create Good Business. Miller recommends using this response for any overly intrusive questions your colleague might lob at you. This is a great response because it pardons your colleague from their blunder while simultaneously diffusing tension, and most importantly lets you avoid the question.

“Enough to live comfortably.”

This response is vague enough that it won’t give your colleague any real information, but also specific enough to not elicit any further questions.

Why are you interested in knowing this information?

Answering with another question can put an end to unwanted question-asking. In her book From the Errors of Others: How to Avoid Embarrassing Mistakes in Writing and Speaking, Rebecca M. Lyles suggests several questions you can ask in return when a colleague asks how much your salary is: “Why would you ask such a thing? Who wants to know? Are you authorized to know that?” are all questions she says you can use to deflect. Additionally, getting insight into why your colleague is asking this question can help you answer appropriately.

“I’d rather not disclose that information.”

One strategy is to just say directly say how you feel about answering that question. You don’t owe your colleagues this information, so they shouldn’t expect you do. Consider finishing this one off with a smile, so it doesn’t come off as a passive aggressive.

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