Six years after Buffer decided to make its salaries public, pay transparency has suddenly become a prominent topic of discussion amongst HR professionals in my circle. In the past month, I found this topic pop up in almost every single forum that I am a part of and I ended up being caught in the cross-hairs forced to pick a side. Between one side that strongly advocated for keeping pay under wraps and the other that promoted putting it out in public, I was usually left swaying from one side to another. Now, there’s good news. I have finally picked a side and before I tell you which one, I want to discuss why it took me this long to decide. Believe me, if your organization still holds public debates of any sort, this makes for an excellent topic.
The case for transparency is simple – fairness. Given the intense debate around gender based pay and now any minority based pay, making salaries public will likely even out the playing field. The assumption is that this move will help address the many hiring biases that exist in the industry today. In addition, it makes for easier negotiation on behalf of the employee. Radical transparency is also said to be a strong attractor for top talent and breeds trust that leads to stronger team work. Or so the theory goes.
On the other hand, comes the question – who’s perception of fairness? Every individual’s definition of fairness varies. To an engineer, making more money than an advertising professional may seem fair. However, to the advertising professional, with the same years of experience & similar level of proficiency at his/her job, this may be complete blasphemy. And really, when did organizations start playing fair? Is your performance management system considered fair? If it isn’t, there’s a high likelihood that pay would not be considered fair either given that there is usually a correlation between the two. Then there is the piece about identifying all variables that go into making an offer and increments, penning them down and explaining them to everyone in the organization.
So what do I think about pay transparency? I believe it is a one way door and one that needs to be opened carefully. It is going to be incredibly difficult to make pay transparent and then one day decide that it doesn’t work. Pay transparency assumes that fairness has one universal definition, employees trust the players defining the rules and have a high level of maturity. It also assumes that when the organization’s rules do not vibe with an employee, they will proceed to find an organization that works better for them vs stay and complain. Some assumptions I agree with, some I do not.
Making salary known requires a massive upheaval of the world as we know it today. It needs all players to embrace a radical change in thinking. In some ways, I believe it will be a great experiment to execute. The world will without doubt learn from it. We will either be proved wrong or will discover a new way of life. Both ways, it is worth a try but maybe start with baby steps. Maybe first put the salary ranges in job descriptions? Begin by publishing pay ranges for job families within the organization?
Honestly, radical pay transparency like Buffer has embraced by making the salaries of all employees public (the spreadsheet is a little dated though), makes me squeamish. I am personally not there yet.
For those who are actively advocating for that kind of transparency, why leave it to organizations to begin? We are aware of our own pay. What if we began by creating a giant spreadsheet where everyone revealed their salary? What if it began by you posting in the comments what your salary is? Wouldn’t that contribute to pay transparency too?