This post has been updated
It’s illegal for US companies to prevent employees from sharing and discussing salary data amongst themselves, though that kind of information exchange rarely happens in a systematic way. But that doesn’t mean companies like it, or handle it well when it arises.
On Friday, Erica Baker, a former Google employee, described an experiment in radical salary transparency she started at the internet giant. She and some colleagues began a spreadsheet, which ultimately revealed some less than flattering things about pay at the company. Baker claims people used it to get more equitable salaries, but it wasn’t without consequences:
Baker said she later found out that coworkers had attempted to give her peer bonuses (on the spot $150 bonuses people at Google can award to colleagues) for her work on the spreadsheet, but that her manager was declining them, a pretty much unheard of act.
Baker has moved on—she’s now an engineer at Slack—but she passed the spreadsheet off to someone else. She says about 5% of the people at the company had added their pay data by the time she left.
The full set of tweets is available via Storify.
Google explicitly “pays unfairly,” according to HR head Laszlo Bock’s recent book. That is, people who have the same job can have very different salaries, depending on what they contribute.
That inequality is meant to be performance based. In general, the company’s pay systems are built with a goal of eliminating “structural bias and inequity,” Bock writes, referring to the tendency of men to negotiate more and more aggressively than women, which contributes to pay inequality. Starting salaries at the company are effectively equal by gender.
This episode seems to indicate that there are some limits to how far Google is willing to go to reduce gaps. More broadly, it also highlights how bad companies and employees are about talking about salary.
“Our policy is not to comment on individual or former employees, but we can confirm that we regularly run analysis of compensation, promotion, and performance to ensure that they are equitable with no pay gap,” A Google spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to Quartz. “Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose.”
It might be awkward to discuss, but keeping salaries secret has helped entrench pay gaps between genders and ethnicities.
Radical salary transparency of the type practiced by companies like Buffer and SumAll might go too far. But companies shouldn’t actively discourage people from discussing salary. An increasing number of tech companies are disclosing their gender pay gaps. That’s the first step to fixing them.
Update: This story was updated on July 21st with a comment from Google.