Talking openly about salaries is still viewed as taboo for many people and many companies, even if it's perfectly legal. But that didn't stop former Google engineer Erica Baker from broaching the subject anyway.
In a series of 34 tweets, Baker—who now works for the office messaging app Slack—outlined how she and some former coworkers created a spreadsheet where they shared their salaries. She reposted it on an internal social network account while still at Google, and it spread "like wildfire," she wrote, with others adding "spreadsheet magic that highlighted not great things re: pay."
Managers weren't happy about it, Baker tweeted, calling her in to ask why she did it and, she claims, ultimately rejecting bonuses her colleagues had given her. (Google lets employees award their co-workers with $150 "peer bonuses" for good work.)
"Before I left, about 5% of former co. had shared their salary on that sheet. People asked for & got equitable pay based on data in the sheet," Baker wrote in a tweet. In another she wrote: "The world didn't end. Everything didn't go up in flames because salaries got shared. But s**t got better for some people."
Baker shared her tweets on Friday, and in the days since they have gone viral. She's been called brave, bold, even a superhero—not only for creating the spreadsheet, but for going public on how she says Google responded. "I think it was extremely brave," said Lynn Root, an engineer at Spotify who has created a database containing public salary data for H-1B visas in the tech industry. "I don’t think I would have the guts to do that."
A Google spokeswoman confirmed that peer bonuses are up to manager discretion and are subject to individual nuance. In an emailed statement, she wrote: "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. Employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose."
Baker's story touched a nerve, certainly, because of her willingness to speak openly about what she says happened. But it also comes amid a growing discussion, particularly in the tech industry, about the power of pay transparency, prompting some of the traditional wariness on the subject to fade.
Back in April, Google's "people operations" head Laszlo Bock addressed the issue, calling pay transparency "a huge thing in Silicon Valley" at an event in Washington D.C. When asked about the issue, Bock said "what typically happens is they do it at companies where there are 50, 100, maybe 250 to 300 people. When you're small you can actually go around to everybody and explain what the difference is. When you're big—when you're 55,000 people—it's hard to explain why there are differences and justify it. So you risk seeming unfair."
Bock went on to explain the approach at Google. While he said people do get some information on the distribution of salaries, "we are not transparent with salaries and bonuses and stock with employees—although managers see it and managers of managers see it—because it doesn't seem to make anyone happier." People end up focusing too much on the final number rather than what goes into it.
"Maybe somebody got a special bonus because they launched a difficult product or they had a really big sale or they did a really cool thing," Bock said. "And if all you do is look at the numbers, that context is missing and it becomes immensely dissatisfying."
He did, however, end his response this way: "I will say there's a bunch of people who wish we would share everything," Bock said. "But the majority of the company is very happy we don't, so that's where we are."
While it may be a complex issue for a company of Google's size to navigate, a growing number of technology startups have become radically transparent with their salary data. The social media tool Buffer publishes its salary formula on its Web site for the world to see. Mobile gaming company Weeby.co says it is transparent about its pay, and puts new hires on a fast-track plan to reach $250,000 a year.
And the data analytics firm SumAll makes information on salaries open to all company insiders. While it creates more stress and workload to explain why one person makes more than another, says Dane Atkinson, CEO of the 36-person company, the benefits far outweigh the problems. He said in an interview that it reduces a lot of politics, helps with faster recruiting, avoids gender pay problems and keeps people focused on the work that the company values.
"Your team is already feeling mistreated by hearing one person’s salary, or hearing about an expense report or making a random guess," Atkinson said. By being open about pay, "you're taking mystery out of it."
Others are taking on the issue individually. In May, the Twitter hashtag #talkpay was started by a programmer named Lauren Voswinkel, prompting many people to share what they make online. Seeing that hashtag spurred Theo Negri, a software developer, to launch a database of salary information for people who have H-1B visas and green cards. The numbers are sourced from publicly available government data. While his database only includes jobs held by people on those visas, he hopes it will help those applying for similar jobs.
Root, the Spotify engineer, created something similar in early 2013. She and her fiance, who is now an engineer at Google, launched a side project called Salar.ly, which also uses salary data that foreign workers in the United States have to report to the government. Root sees her effort as particularly helpful for women to get a starting point to use for salary negotiation."Women and minorities want an equal footing," she said. "It's a good environment for opening up data."
SumAll's Atkinson, meanwhile, says he's hearing more interest in salary transparency not just from other tech startups, but from much larger corporations. "When we were first written about four years ago, there were like 80,000 comments and they all thought we were utterly insane," he said. "We'd talk to senior executives at big companies and it was almost laughable."
But now, Atkinson says, he has been having more substantive conversations with big firms about the upsides of SumAll's approach. "The tone has changed," he said.
Atkinson also says more tech workers like Erica Baker are likely to come forward, especially since the huge demand for tech workers' skills means there is less fear and less downside to the risk of sharing details. "It's very encouraging people are feeing confident about talking about this," he said. "Even if companies aren’t talking about it, employees are taking it into their own hands."