Why talk about compensation?

Feb 17, 2020

There's been some Twitter discourse about people working in tech sharing their salaries - it started with Zac Sweers, and many other people shared their compensation. As that was happening, there was some backlash1 , saying that people sharing their salaries is basically just flexing, and instead of bragging on Twitter, people should just go out and do something that actually helps, like unionizing.

While I don't think that the current iteration of people sharing their salaries on Twitter is as useful as it could be, I think that it's incredibly important for people to talk about their pay, and I want to tell you a few stories about why. To start with, we'll have to go back a decade - a group of employees of tech companies including Google, Apple, and Intel filed a class action lawsuit, stating that their employers colluded in a wage-fixing agreement to keep salaries down.

Steve Jobs was at the source of much of the wage-fixing, becoming angry when companies hired Apple employees - he wrote to Google co-founder Sergey Brin regarding the Safari team:

if you hire a single one of these people that means war.

When a Google employee referred an Apple employee for a job, Steve Jobs emailed Eric Schmidt, who responded by firing the Google employee who had sent the referral. Google's staffing director saying upon hearing about the situation that the employee "will be terminated within the hour," and to "Please extend my apologies as appropriate to Steve Jobs."

When Palm, Inc refused to participate in the wage-fixing agreement, Steve Jobs wrote:

This is not satisfactory to Apple.

I'm sure you realize the asymmetry in the financial resources of our respective companies when you say: "we will both just end up paying a lot of lawyers a lot of money."

My advice is to take a look at our patent portfolio before you make a final decision here.

A Senior Vice President at Google wrote about compensation that:

[The] long-term ... right approach is not to deal with these situations as one-offs but to have a systematic approach to compensation that makes it very difficult for anyone to get a better offer.

As a result of driving wages down for more than half a decade, the companies paid out around $3,840 to each affected employee. I'll let you do the math on that one.

So I think that it's obvious that employers have shown in interest in keeping salaries down, and one of the tools that is used to do that is making sure people don't have information about how much their coworkers are being paid. And while tech workers have it pretty good in terms of compensation (at least here in the States), the number of people I know who save their company tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and as a reward are given raises less than a tenth of a percent of what they saved makes me think that it's worth talking about who's capturing the value of our labour.

But how we talk about our salaries matters - just knowing that other people are out there, making four or five times as much as you are doesn't help your situation much unless you're able to negotiate that raise for yourself.

A friend of mine recently learned that one of his coworkers made around 1.6x what he did. If the story ended there, it wouldn't be too interesting. But instead of just leaving for greener pastures, or negotiating a raise for himself, he started talking to his coworkers about how much they made. As it turned out, everyone except one person all made about the same amount - why was that person's work (doing the same work on the same project team) worth 60% more than everyone else's? Just a couple months after talking frankly about compensation, the highly-paid coworker and my friend negotiated for an extra week of vacation (not just for themselves, but for everyone at the company). And it's not just vacation - collectively, everyone at the company negotiated for oncall compensation as well. After talking to his coworkers about their compensation, and collectively bargaining for fairer compensation, my friend has now gone on to sign an offer at a different company for significantly more money - all because of open conversations about salary and working environments, and collective action to improve that for everyone.

By talking with our coworkers, being open about our salaries, and bargaining collectively, we can not just improve our own conditions, but also lift up everyone around us. People have fought and been killed for our right to openly discuss compensation, and I think it's worth exercising that right. So talk to your coworkers, and if you see me around the office or in person, know that I'm happy to talk about how much I'm paid and what I know about salary bands at any place I've worked.

By talking to your coworkers and building solidarity, we can build a fairer and better world together.

  1. I'm not going to link any specific tweets, but I saw this from a few places.