The Salary Taboo: Privacy Norms and the Diffusion of Information

72 Pages Posted: 10 Nov 2018 Last revised: 27 May 2022

See all articles by Zoe Cullen

Zoe Cullen

Harvard University - Business School (HBS)

Ricardo Perez-Truglia

University of California, Berkeley; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: October 2, 2018


The limited diffusion of salary information has implications for labor markets, such as wage discrimination policies and collective bargaining. Access to salary information is believed to be limited and unequal, but there is little direct evidence on the sources of these information frictions. Social scientists have long conjectured that privacy norms around salary (i.e., the “salary taboo”) play an important role. We provide unique evidence of this phenomenon based on a field experiment with 755 employees at a large commercial bank from Southeast Asia. We provide revealed-preference evidence that many employees are unwilling to reveal their salaries to coworkers and reluctant to ask coworkers about their salaries. These frictions are still present, but smaller in magnitude, when sharing information that is less sensitive (seniority information). We discuss implications for pay transparency policies and the gender wage gap.

Keywords: Information Diffusion, Salary, Privacy, Inequality, Transparency, Gender

JEL Classification: D83, D84, D91, C93, J16, J31, M12

Suggested Citation

Cullen, Zoe and Perez-Truglia, Ricardo, The Salary Taboo: Privacy Norms and the Diffusion of Information (October 2, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Zoe Cullen

Harvard University - Business School (HBS) ( email )

Soldiers Field Road
Morgan 270C
Boston, MA 02163
United States


Ricardo Perez-Truglia (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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