Are Google's salaries unfair?

A mysterious salary spreadsheet apparently reveals a pay gap at Google, but for the employee behind the document it wasn't a good career move.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

Salaries are a tricky subject. Like politics, religion and intimate waxing, it’s definitely on the ‘do not discuss at the dinner table’ list. But increasingly, a lack of transparency over salaries is being seen as an important reason behind the continued gender pay gap.

Not all firms are keen to climb onboard the (presumably invisible) transparency bandwagon, however, especially when it comes to salaries. The mighty Google, it appears, has had that choice taken from it.

Google software engineer Erica Baker created a spreadsheet within the firm’s own social network with some colleagues. They wanted to share information about their salaries, and encouraged other staff to do the same.

According to Baker, who no longer works for Google and who recently told the story on Twitter, approximately 5% of the tech giant’s staff put their details on the spreadsheet, revealing unfair discrepancies in pay.

‘People asked for and got equitable pay based on the data in the sheet,’ Baker said, though she did not specify whether the ‘not great things re: pay’ were along gender or racial lines.

Google is actually honest about having ‘unfair’ pay – its HR boss Laszlo Bock revealed as much in his recent book. But what that means is paying people based on how valuable the company thinks the employee is, from the contribution they make.

Despite or perhaps because of this, Google did not take kindly to Baker’s initiative. When she awarded numerous ‘peer bonuses’ – commendations from colleagues worth $150 (£106) – her manager took the remarkable step of vetoing them, Baker claims, adding that her white, male colleague, who also helped create the spreadsheet, had no such problems. Baker, a black woman, also used the word 'racist' in relation to the affair.

Google won’t comment on the matter, so it’s impossible to know the full story. Suffice it to say that Baker fell out with her bosses over the spreadsheet, despite the fact that it’s illegal to retaliate over sharing salary in the United States, and left the firm without revealing the exact circumstances.

Does the fact that Google wanted to keep its salaries opaque mean that it was being unjust or discriminatory and wanted to keep it secret? No. What’s often forgotten in the quest for workplace equality is that most resistance to it is not grounded in sexism, racism or homophobia, at least not consciously. It’s got far more to do with perceptions of what’s best for the company, whether those perceptions are accurate or not.

Salary transparency could be bad for business. It could foster resentment, envy or dissatisfaction. Why should I work 10% harder than my colleague if they still get paid 50% more than me for doing the same job?

On the flip side, it makes it hard for employers like Google to use their discretion to pay people based on the market value of their labour. Two people with the same job title, responsibilities and experience do not necessarily make the same contribution or have the same value to rival employers.  

Baker clearly disagrees - ‘the world didn’t end. Everything didn’t go up in flames because salaries got shared.’ – but Google has a reasonable case for not wanting to share, without that making it prejudiced.  

Pay transparency may well be a good way to factor out unconscious bias and such things as the supposedly more aggressive pay negotiation tactics used by men, but there could be disadvantages too.

Still, Google won’t be happy. It’s keen on its image as a chilled-out, generally not-evil kind of guy, and after the whole sexist algorithm-gate thing, it will want this to go away quickly. It rather helps when you have the keys to the internet. The spreadsheet itself remains private and doesn't come up on any searches. 

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