#2: How do I improve compensation fairness at my company ?

Graffiti of the Monopoly Man holding a bag of cash

Welcome to Dear Ally Skills Teacher! For my first few columns, I will be answering questions I frequently get in Ally Skills Workshops, summarized by me in letter form. Future columns will be answers to questions sent in by readers, which you can send by filling out this form.

Dear Ally (Skills Teacher),

I am a man of European descent in a line manager position at my Berlin-based company, which has about 100 people. Now that I have access to the compensation data for my coworkers, I’m noticing a LOT of inequality. Some of my coworkers are making about 60% as much other people who are doing the same work, and there’s a clear pattern of women and non-binary people making less than men and people of European descent making more than people who aren’t. I can directly advocate for increases for the people who report to me, but is there a way I can change the overall compensation system at my company to be more fair?

—Frustrated by the System

I’m thrilled that you both want to help the people who directly report to you and also fix the overall system at your company. You are more likely to be able to help the people who report directly to you, but it’s worth thinking about how you can help other people at your company. This post will focus mainly on making systemic changes across your company.

First, a disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer, and this column is not legal advice. Depending on the location, laws about compensation vary wildly. It’s up to you to be aware of the laws in your jurisdiction and consult legal advice when necessary.

Make fair initial compensation offers

Scales of justiceThe first thing to recognize is that future compensation is highly dependent on current compensation. In other words, compensating someone fairly when they are hired is an effective way to reduce compensation inequality.

What is your company’s system for deciding on initial compensation offers? At many companies, job offers leave a lot of room for personal decisions by the hiring manager, which opens up opportunities for bias to operate. If you have influence in this area, you can argue for the standard corporate-friendly interventions:

For more details on how and why to implement many of the standard corporate-friendly changes, see the Bias Interrupters website.

Riskier ways to make fair initial compensation offers

If you are willing to take on more personal risk to your own career and compensation, you have a few more options for improving initial compensation offers. The risk for most of these options comes from the fact that many companies try hard to only allow management to see information about worker compensation. This helps companies depress workers’ wages because in a negotiation, the party with more information usually gets a better deal. Here are some risky actions you might consider to improve the fairness of initial compensation offers:

You should consider seeking legal advice from a lawyer who is not representing your company before taking these actions. I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. Depending on the legal jurisdiction you are in, corporations may have succeeded in passing anti-worker laws which make these actions illegal. Even if your lawyer assures you that taking these actions is legal—and even if retaliating against employees for taking them is illegal—you may still be taken to court and/or retaliated against. One of the reasons I don’t talk about employment law much is that companies routinely violate employment law and get away with it. Short version: Don’t rely on the law to protect your job.

Erica Baker’s experience sharing compensation information is a good example of how this kind of action can play out, and how privilege can affect it. She and several coworkers created a spreadsheet for Google employees to share their compensation with each other. While it is technically illegal to retaliate against employees for sharing compensation information in the U.S., she was denied peer bonuses and criticized by her management chain for her role in creating the spreadsheet. She then learned that a white male coworker who helped create the spreadsheet was receiving his peer bonuses while Baker, a Black woman, was not.

The next section will include safer ways to advocate for compensation transparency in a systemic manner. Keep in mind that these safer systemic changes are made possible by individual acts of resistance like that of Baker and her coworkers.

Improve performance reviews

Tall stepladderOnce a worker is hired, the next opportunity to improve their compensation is during performance reviews. The first question is, does your company have a standard system for reviewing worker compensation at fixed, predictable intervals? If not, privileged people are more likely to ask for and get raises and promotions. Most of the interventions for improving initial compensation (standardized job types and ranges, career ladders, anti-bias training, anti-bias statements, etc.) will also apply here.

Compensation transparency

A more radical intervention is to advocate for compensation transparency—sharing the compensation for everyone in your company. The business world is full of arguments against compensation transparency that pretend that the issue is how workers will react—it will create jealousy and discontent among workers, workers don’t want others to know how much they make, workers won’t work as hard, etc.—but whenever it is actually implemented, it usually works just fine.

For example, the salaries of everyone who works for the U.S. government are public knowledge (although the names of some employees are withheld for national security reasons). Buffer is a tech company that publishes both the salaries and equity distribution of all its employees. Compensation transparency doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; for example, Glitch (formerly Fog Creek Software) is a tech company that surveyed its employees about what level of compensation transparency they wanted. Based on the results, they decided to share salary ranges of all its workers in an internal spreadsheet, as well as formally support employees voluntarily sharing their exact compensation. SumAll is a data analytics company that shares exact employee salaries internally but doesn’t make them available to the general public.

For the specific case of a 100 person Berlin-based company like yours, Germany passed a law in 2018 requiring companies with more than 200 employees to allow employees to find out the median pay of their peers, split up by gender. You could make the argument that you’re just implementing pay transparency a little ahead of schedule.

Line drawing of a handshake
CC BY Aidan Jones

When you look at the objections to compensation transparency, the problems are caused not by knowing what coworkers make, but by knowing that some workers are unfairly compensated. If workers feel they are fairly compensated, they are more satisfied and happier at their jobs and less likely to quit. Compensation transparency actually improves employee satisfaction and the perception of fairness—one survey found that 90% of workers who thought they were paid below market rate were actually paid above market rate. The true motivation for compensation secrecy is to protect unfair compensation practices and to reduce workers’ wages overall.

Compensation audits

Those are the standard methods for fairly compensating workers, but often a company has a built-up level of unfairness that is hard to fix in the normal review cycle. In that case, you can advocate for a compensation audit: an across-the-board review that compares the jobs people are doing to their compensation, and quantifies any patterns in differences based on race, gender, age, etc. Compensation is then adjusted for a large number of people at once. Salesforce now does yearly compensation audits, spending several million a year to raise salaries. If you’re planning to increase compensation transparency, it would be wise to do a compensation audit first.

None of these approaches will entirely fix compensation inequity: for example, it’s fairly common for marginalized people to be doing higher-level work than their official position describes. In that case, they may be paid the same as more privileged people holding the same position, but still be undercompensated for the work they perform (as Buffer discovered). Fixing this level of misperception requires that the people assigning these positions learn to compensate for their bias, and that takes more than one or two anti-oppression trainings. And systemic oppression at a societal level will limit the opportunities of marginalized people long before they apply for a job at your company. What you can do is improve fairness and equity for people once they apply for a job working at your company.

How to advocate for change

An hour glassYou probably shouldn’t show up at your next meeting with all of these changes in one big proposal. Instead, start sharing the articles linked to in this post with other influential people at your company, chat with your coworkers about these ideas at lunch, and invite experts to speak about these topics at your company (and pay them). People often believe that no other organizations have taken these steps and survived, so sharing real-world examples of organizations that have improved compensation fairness is helpful.

Ally skill: Argue for changes based on your values

Argue for these changes based on your values. You value fairness, so you want to know your coworkers are fairly compensated; you value justice, so you want a workplace culture that actively fights oppression; you value transparency, so you want your workplace to be more open about compensation practices. Don’t argue for or speak on behalf of marginalized folks directly; avoid statements like “We need to do this because women at our company are unhappy,” which easily lends itself to a variety of stereotypes of marginalized people being “ungrateful” or “lazy” or “a hard worker but not a leader.” Instead, say things like, “I believe in fair compensation regardless of gender, and I want my company to live up to that standard.” Speak for yourself, gather support, act strategically, be patient and persistent, and you will have the best chance of progress.

Have you been in a similar situation? Share what worked (or didn’t work) for you in the comments!

Next column: It seems like I get more praise for doing the same anti-oppression work as more marginalized people. What’s up with that?

Featured image: CC BY Eden, Jeanine, and Jim https://flic.kr/p/JU9Aiz

#1: A woman of color I work with opposes anti-racism work

Cursive graffiti reading "listen" with a sun rising behind it

Welcome to Dear Ally Skills Teacher! For my first few columns, I will be answering questions I frequently get in Ally Skills Workshops, summarized by me in letter form. Future columns will be answers to questions sent in by readers, which you can send by filling out this form.

Dear Ally Skills Teacher,

I am a white man who is pretty well respected individual contributor at my U.S.-based company. I’ve been trying to use my influence to support anti-racism work like compensation audits and recruiting at universities with more people of color. Most of the feedback I get is positive, including from people of color at my company.

What worries me is a Latina coworker of mine who speaks up to say that she doesn’t need any “special treatment” and that she opposes whatever change I am supporting. I know you say to listen to targets of oppression about what they need, but what do I do when they disagree with each other?

—Listening but Confused

I love getting this question, because it means people are taking risks, instead of only acting when they feel 100% safe. Rest assured that, despite what your coworker says, any race-based “special treatment” going on at your company is helping white people, not people of color! My general rule is that whenever people claim that a marginalized group is getting an unearned advantage, it’s probably true that the privileged group is getting that advantage.

Your question goes straight to the heart of a difficult problem: In general, we should listen to and follow marginalized people when we are fighting the system of oppression that affects them most, but what do we do when marginalized people disagree with each other, or tell us to support their own oppression? I’ll start with some basic concepts around diversity of opinion, listening, and co-option. Then I’ll talk about how to decide between differing opinions, followed by a technique to redirect any backlash to your anti-oppression efforts away from marginalized people and towards the privileged group.

Marginalized people have different opinions

Mountain range with treesAs you’ve noticed, marginalized people aren’t a monolith, any more than privileged people are. You disagree with your white coworkers about compensation audits; it’s no surprise your coworkers of color also disagree with each other about compensation audits. People’s opinions will also change as time goes by and they gain experience. In my experience, people like your Latina coworker often haven’t had a lot of negative experiences yet—maybe because they haven’t been working long, or they were protected by a powerful person, or they just got lucky.

One tragic example of this kind of evolution is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. She wrote a book exhorting working women to “lean in” to their careers to solve systemic discrimination against women in the workplace. After the sudden accidental death of her husband a few years later, she admitted she had failed to understand the challenges facing mothers working outside the home until she herself became a single mother.

Privileged groups reward marginalized people for supporting oppression

Let’s talk more about why people should listen to members of marginalized groups when trying to support that group. On average, marginalized people know more about what it’s like to be a marginalized person. They have stronger personal motivation to study oppression and do research on the causes and solutions. Listening to people about what they want is a mark of basic respect for someone’s humanity and agency which should be extended to everyone, not just the most privileged. But none of these reasons means that any particular member of a marginalized group is necessarily an expert on how to fight systemic oppression against that group.

In fact, there’s quite a lot of pressure on marginalized people to defend the existing power structure, or at least not challenge it. As just one example of many, Bill Cosby, himself a Black person, rose to fame and wealth while avoiding the topic of anti-Black racism in his public work. After his career was well-established, he delivered his infamous “Pound Cake Speech,” which blamed Black people for their own oppression—and continued to receive honorary degrees from universities for many years afterward. (Many of those honorary degrees were later rescinded, not for Cosby’s racism, but because Tarana Burke and others led the #MeToo movement which played a key role in holding Cosby accountable for his record of sexual assault.) Cosby was also rewarded for supporting the narrative that his personal success is “proof” that other Black people are not being held back by racism, thereby reinforcing and legitimizing racism further.

Other examples of marginalized people who have been rewarded for reinforcing oppression against their group include Amy Chua, Peter Thiel, Phyllis Schlafly, and Barack Obama. Rewarding “token” members of a group for reinforcing the system of oppression that keeps most members of their group out of power is part of how privileged groups protect their unfair advantages.

Deciding which marginalized people to listen to

Sleepy fennec fox
CC BY yvonne n from willowick, usa

If we should listen to marginalized people, and marginalized people can disagree with each other and change their minds, and are rewarded for reinforcing their own oppression, how do you decide who to listen to? The answer is that you figure out which marginalized people know more about how to fight the system of oppression affecting them, and follow their lead. Here are a few questions you can ask to help determine this.

Do they regularly reinforce oppression?

If a marginalized person regularly reinforces oppression against their own group, you probably shouldn’t follow their advice about supporting that group. This might look like:

  • Putting down other members of their group: “I’m not like the other girls, I’m much more rational than them.”
  • Victim-blaming: “Other Black people need to dress more professionally if they want to be taken seriously, like I do.”
  • Demonstrating bias against their own group: “I didn’t promote him because he’s so flamboyantly gay, and I’m pretty gay myself.”
  • Denying that oppression of their group exists: “My success as a fat person proves that fat people don’t have it any harder than skinny people.”

In general, if someone acts like they are biased against a marginalized group, you shouldn’t listen to their advice about supporting that group, whether or not they are part of that group.

Do they have empathy and respect for others?

If someone demonstrates little empathy and respect for other marginalized people (of their own group or others), they probably aren’t a reliable source of advice for systemic change. They might have good insight on what helps them personally, but they are unable to extend that insight to others, or understand how to change the system as a whole. For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s book for working women was so specific to her position at the time—white, upper class, attended Harvard, extremely wealthy, married a supportive man, etc.—that it was no longer applicable even to herself once she became a single parent. Advice like this probably won’t take into account intersectionality, the way that multiple systems of oppression interact and influence each other, as described by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Are they a reliable source of information?

You can also pay attention to all the usual signs of whether someone is a reliable source of information. Do they:

  • Have a hard time admitting they are wrong?
  • Discount research or the lived experience of others because they don’t like its implications?
  • Exaggerate small things or downplay big things?
  • Change their opinion drastically depending on who is listening?
  • Seem uninterested in learning new things or listening to others?

Listening is not the same as taking advice

You can also listen to someone without taking their advice. If you listen to your Latina coworker, you will realize that for her, it feels more dangerous and scary to be in a workplace where racism is being actively opposed than one in which racism is an accepted fact. When people are fighting oppression, the “rules” of how to stay safe change constantly. Your coworker has figured out how to navigate a workplace with specific patterns of systemic racism, and you are forcing her into unknown waters. That doesn’t mean you should stop fighting for change, but it does mean you should think about how to minimize backlash against marginalized people stemming from your actions.

Ally skill: Frame changes in terms of the privileged group

Black and white picture frameOne technique I use to reduce backlash against marginalized people is to frame changes in terms of the more privileged group. Instead of saying, “We need a salary audit because people of color are complaining that they are being systematically paid less,” you might say, “We need a compensation audit because I am unhappy that white people are being systematically paid more than their equally qualified peers.” Most likely the solution will be the same—raise the compensation of people of color to match that of white people—but you are highlighting white people as the cause of the problem, and locating the push for the change as coming from a white person. I recommend keeping the focus on the unfair advantages being given to the privileged group, because it implies both the cause of the problem and the solution to the problem are the responsibility of the privileged group rather than the marginalized group.

Keep at it! If you are successful, at some point it will be safer to support anti-oppression work at your company than to oppose it, and people who need safety and predictability will be on your side. Until then, figure out who can give you good advice about how to fight oppression, reframe your efforts as fighting unfair advantages given to the privileged group, and keep listening even if you don’t take someone’s advice.

Have you been in a similar situation? Share what worked (or didn’t work) for you in the comments!

Next column: Company management says that knowing what coworkers are paid will make workers unhappy. Is that true?

Featured image: CC BY-SA runran https://flic.kr/p/5o8gGC