Imagine a couple of employees at your company create a spreadsheet that lists their salaries. They place the spreadsheet on an internal network, where other employees soon add their own financial information. Within a day, the project has caught on like wildfire, with people not only listing their salaries but also their bonuses and other compensation-related info.
While that might sound a little far-fetched, that’s exactly the scenario that recently played out at Google, according to an employee, Erica Baker, who detailed the whole incident on Twitter. While management frowned upon employees sharing salary data, she wrote, “the world didn’t end… everything didn’t go up in flames because salaries got shared.”
For years, employees and employers have debated the merits (and drawbacks) of revealing salaries. While most workplaces keep employee pay a tightly guarded secret, others have begun fiddling with varying degrees of transparency, taking inspiration from studies that have shown a higher degree of salary-related openness translates into happier workers. (Those results aren’t uniform; other studies (PDF) have hinted at negative repercussions.)
Baker’s experience—if you take her descriptions at face value—provides a neat little window into the company-wide impact of employees deciding to start sharing salary data with one another. Google managers and executives, once they discovered what was happening, became very upset (“Higher up people weren’t happy,” she wrote in one Tweet). Some employees, though, were grateful at the opportunity to see whether they were underpaid.
According to Baker, the spreadsheet (which featured the salaries for 5 percent of Google’s employees at its peak) revealed that her division manager had declined to pay out peer bonuses to certain individuals, which sparked protest. In the end, the added transparency compelled more Google employees to ask and receive “equitable pay based on data in the sheet.”
That sounds like a great income for a lot of Google employees, but the broader debate still rages about the virtues of making salaries transparent. While openness and communication tend to make employees happier, many executives feel that giving everybody access to salary data will spark too much internal strife.