Tag: tech

5 Arguments Against Salary Transparency


Or, SAO Thinks About Buffer, Part Two. Here’s Part One.

In chatting with folks about Buffer’s approach to salary (making not just the process of assigning a salary, but the final number for each employee) transparent both internally and externally, there have been some common arguments against it. I’d like to talk about them a little, and discuss my thinking about each.

You’ll recall from Part One that I think that the transparent salary system is a great one, though I would impress upon the skeptical reader that my primary philosophical approval is for the transparency of the process – the actual visible list of salaries at the end is, in my view, a pleasant side effect of a much bigger, and more important, piece. The process being transparent is really the lynch pin here, I reckon.

Here are some arguments I’ve heard against salary transparency, and my thoughts on them:

“I think salaries are a private and personal thing.”
I’d suggest that this is a cultural artifact that holds us back. Seeing how salaries are assigned takes something that is currently invisible, and makes it visible. The final numbers are much less important than the fact that the process that results in those numbers is visible and accountable – making the actual salaries visible is simply a check on that process, a verification that it works as intended and displayed. Invisible salaries (and salary assignation processes) open the door for unjust practices that have become endemic, and are likely often simply the result of unknowing implicit biases – women being paid less, minorities being paid less.

I think transparency around salary processes and final salaries may place some tension on our traditional ideas of what should be private, that is certainly true. But, I think that making them public and visible is much better for us, as workers and as a society that desires equity, in the long run.

“I trust our HR department to take care of that.”
That’s great! I also am lucky to work in a place where I truly believe that our HR department has the best interests of the employees in their hearts, and I trust them completely. That being said, I don’t have to trust anyone else I work with – because their work is visible and available and under review from the rest of the company. This black-box nature of salary assignation is not only bad for non-HR employees, it’s bad for folks in HR – it means that they can’t have open and frank conversations about issues that might concern them, it means they’re denied the usual diversity of perspective and insight from their comrades with particularly tricky issues.

As well, it’s worth noting that the Buffer system is entirely self-contained – the questions of salary exist entirely within a box of particular questions and qualifications. During interviews and salary discussions, it becomes much easier and less stressful for the HR staff – no more fuzzy edges or uncomfortable conversations. It’s all in the spreadsheet.

“This is a non-issue. If you’re happy with your own salary, then stay where you are. If you aren’t happy with your salary, then find a new job.”
This mistakes the final result for the process – the question isn’t about the particular salaries of employees, or my salary specifically, but rather visible assurance that everyone’s being compensated fairly. That’s it – whether or not I’m happy with what I’m paid has no impact here. In a more transparent system, I’d at least be able to ask questions about why I’m paid what I’m paid, and how to make moves in the right direction (“So, how can I move from Rookie to Journeyman?” etc).

“I have absolutely no interest in seeing salaries.”
I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that it would be mandatory reading – I’d be curious to know how many folks actually do review the pay sheet, internally, at Buffer.

“Public employers have had transparent salaries for a long time, and they’re famous for being inefficient and having stagnant promotion patterns.”
True as this may be, I think we can acknowledge that there is an essential and important distinction between government employees and folks working at cutting edge tech companies. New companies doing business in new ways bring all sorts of interesting iterations on longstanding traditions that can often bear excellent organizational returns – I’d argue that transparent salary assignation processes is a great example of this. Just because transparent salaries are a property of a class of organizations we do not want to emulate does not mean that it won’t really shine when we try it in a new class of organization. So, let’s do it!

What do you think? Do you have an argument against fully transparent salaries and salary assignation processes?