Want Fair Pay? Gossip About What You Make With Your Co-Workers

Contrary to popular belief, there are no laws against sharing salary information — and doing so actually increases the chance of being paid fairly.

fair pay

To ensure that you’re paid fairly at your job, the best advice may be to talk to co-workers about how much you make. Seriously.

This is exactly what happened at Google, where several workers made their salaries public in a shared spreadsheet (a move initiated by engineer Erica Baker), who told her story recently on Twitter.

Currently an engineer at the chat service Slack, Baker reveals that about 5% of Google workers, or nearly 2,800 people, shared their pay information on the salary spreadsheet. While she didn’t go into extensive detail about what they found, evidently many people felt they were being paid less than what they deserved. “People asked for and got equitable pay,” she tweeted, “based on the data in the sheet.” (Read the whole tweet-feed in the link above.)

Like not talking about politics or religion in polite company, keeping silent about your salary has long been one of the unofficial rules of office life. In fact, the standard wisdom is that making pay known to others will inevitably lead to jealousy, conflict and tension among colleagues. Yet the truth is there is no rule against discussing pay. The National Labor Relations Act even protects (the majority of) workers who disclose their salaries.

In short, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is largely a myth, passed on by generations of business school grads who don’t want employees gossiping about salary for one simple reason: employers can get away with paying less if workers don’t know those salary details. Once folks in the office start talking, more people will inevitably end up wanting a raise.

This is why many employment law attorneys and other experts note that talking about pay with your colleagues is the easiest way to figure out whether you’re getting a fair deal or if there are serious problems with gender, racial or age discrimination in your place of work.

According to Donna Ballman, an employment lawyer in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, “people think of talking about salary as kind of taboo, but it’s a good thing. How else are you going find out if something illegal is going on or if you’re treated fairly?”

Yet of course the question remains: what is fair? Determining a workers salary isn’t like pricing a gallon of milk. Fair pay doesn’t necessarily mean everyone earns exactly the same amount.

For this reason, Google has been explicit about the fact that different workers earn different salaries for the same jobs. The company’s senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock, actually has an entire chapter about this in his recent book Work Rules. Titled “Pay Unfairly,” the chapter argues that the best workers contribute substantially more to the bottom line than the average worker, thus justifying this difference.

Quoting Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Bock states that “A great writer of software code is worth 10,000 times the price of an average software writer.”

Yet of course, working out a salary is tricky business. Bias and inequity generally find a way to creep in: in 2015, women still earn less than men; black workers are typically paid less than whites.

Yet Google has made a concerted effort to stamp out such identity-based inequalities Some female engineers at the company make more than male engineers there, according to a report from Glassdoor.

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