When I got hired in my first job as an account executive in 1981, I was disappointed my starting salary was $16,500.
My boss gave me a little pep talk. He told me that the rule of financial success at that time was to be "earning your age by the time you're 30." I quickly did the math and determined I could easily be making more than 30 grand a year by the time I reached 30, so I relaxed about the money. For about a week.
In truth, I didn't care so much about my salary because I was young, I was supposed to be struggling, and I absolutely loved my job. I continued happily along, eating grilled-cheese sandwiches at cheap diners, buying my suits at Moe Ginsburg's Discount Menswear, and paying off my student loans. I felt lucky to have a job at a big-time New York City PR agency.
My boss in those days was a member of senior management and his duties included overseeing the HR function. One evening, I went in to see him about some issues with my client, but he wasn't in the office. I started to leave, then noticed a document lying open on his desk that contained the compensation details for everyone in the firm.
It was a Leave it to Beaver moment for me. I froze in moral paralysis. I had two choices. I could do the right thing and walk away or I could do the wrong thing and snoop and see how much everyone in the agency made.
Of course, I did the wrong thing. With my heart pounding, I devoured the data on that page like I was gobbling down Peanut M&Ms, savoring every bit of juicy detail. It was fascinating. Enlightening. Horrifying. I darted out of his office burning with the power of newfound knowledge. I felt like I had stolen the keys to the castle. Knowledge was power and I had it all.
Little did I know that this power would turn to poison.
The details on that page began to haunt me. Why was Michele making more than I was? My billings were bigger than hers. And what about Randolph? Randolph! Was he really worth $56,000 a year? Preposterous! And how could they pay Richard more than Barbara?
Knowing my coworkers' salaries was truly a curse. I couldn't use the data for negotiating because I had obtained it illicitly. And the worst part: I was no longer able to be patient about my own salary when I knew peers were making more than me.
Soon enough, I found myself getting obsessively focused on the fact that Michele made $2,000 a year more than I did, even though I was clearly working twice as hard. Clearly! Worst of all, I began to resent a job that I had cherished.
Thirty years later, you'd think I would have learned to stop worrying about how much money the person down the hall is making. And when I advise others, that lesson seems to have taken hold. When friends or candidates complain about making less than a peer, I encourage them to stop obsessing over other people and focus instead on whether or not they love their job.
So what would happen if my boss left the payroll ledger out on his desk today? I'd love to say I could just walk away with a Zen-like confidence that my situation was just fine, regardless of those around me. In truth, however, I'm still not so sure I could resist the temptation to peek.
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.