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Pay Transparency: Where Is Your Organization on the Spectrum?

In August 2015, I wrote a post that took a decidedly guarded position on the benefits of pay transparency. That post was written in the context of the SEC’s pay ratio disclosure rules, requiring the disclosure of executive pay as compared to the average worker’s pay. I’ve been mulling the topic of pay transparency ever since then, wondering if I was too conservative. I recently attended a webinar on pay transparency sponsored by PayScale and BambooHR which caused me to adjust my thinking. This post deals with the merits of pay transparency as a management philosophy, rather than as a response to a government mandate.

The thrust of the PayScale/BambooHR webinar was that pay transparency is really a continuum of pay strategies. Each organization must decide where on the continuum to place its pay philosophy, based on the organization’s goals and desired culture.

If an employer decides to migrate further along the pay transparency continuum, then management and Human Resources in that organization need to be more disciplined in setting pay and in discussing pay with employees. Making pay transparency work requires good market data and an understanding of what skills and performance the organization needs from its employees.

The PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum


As depicted in the webinar, there are five stages on the “PayScale Pay Transparency Spectrum.” The remainder of this post describes the five steps as outlined by Payscale and Bamboo HR, but many of the attitudes expressed regarding the pros and cons of each step are my own, and not necessarily those of the presenters.

1. What — Employees understand what they get paid — how much, when pay day is, etc. This is a bare minimum, and certainly all employers should at least be willing to tell their employees this much.

Even conservatives like me would not object to this step on the spectrum. If this is part of pay transparency, then I can easily support any company getting to this first level.

2. How — Employees are told how the organization uses data to make pay decisions. If the employer uses market pay data, then employees are told how market studies are conducted, or at least which companies are considered comparable. If jobs are graded on a point factor system, then the factors are described.

Opening up pay calculations to this level on the spectrum can be a big step in helping employees accept the fairness of pay scales and understanding the value of their job versus working at another company. But employees will ask questions about how jobs are defined and whether the benchmark companies are good comparators, so managers and HR do need to be educated in how to respond to such questions.

Again, I can readily support this step on the continuum for most companies. Assuming that an employer does have a pay structure with job grades and salary benchmarking, then the employer should be able to explain to employees how that system works. Not all companies will choose to pay to market, but if they don’t, they should be able to explain why (“we choose to be an entry-level employer, and we understand turnover will be higher,” for example). By contrast, when a company wants to be an employer of choice and to pay at or above market, then they should be happy to explain that philosophy.

3. Where — The third step on the spectrum is explaining to individual employees where they fall in the pay range. This goes beyond explaining what the salary range for a position is (Step 2) and requires telling individuals how their individual pay was set and what their future salary expectations are.

For certain (typically non-exempt) positions, salary increases are based on seniority or time-in-grade or the achievement of specific skill sets. In those instances, where pay increases are based on objective factors, it only makes sense to tell employees about the factors. In addition, when a company wants to focus on employee development and career opportunities, reaching this step on the transparency continuum can enrich the career planning and performance discussions.

The more subjective the criteria for offering pay increases, however, the more managers and HR need to be trained in how to discuss pay with employees. I think this was my hesitancy when I addressed the topic before. I’ve seen too many instances when managers handled these conversations poorly.

4. Why — The fourth step on the spectrum is explaining to employees why the organization pays the way it does. This requires a good understanding of the desired workplace culture and how pay fits with that culture. At this step, employers not only tell employees how they can increase their individual pay within the pay grades and ranges, but the organization also explains what is important for the future success of the organization.

At this level, management training is even more important than at Step 3. The questions about paying to market or not must be answered to deal with pay transparency at this level. Not all managers are able to talk effectively about workplace culture and employee engagement and retention. Particularly when managers themselves are not satisfied with their pay—or don’t understand how their own pay is set—they will not be effective communicators.

The webinar presenters stated that this level might be a good goal to reach on pay transparency, although they did not advocate it for all employers. They did emphasize the need for management training. I am not sure that many employers are ready for this level. Certainly many that I have worked with would need significant improvement in their management ranks before reaching full transparency about the links between pay philosophy and culture. But organizations with professional employees and highly skilled managers might well have this level as a goal.

5. Whoa! — Yes, this was the fifth level on the pay transparency continuum. This is the level that is often discussed in the media—where there are open discussions about which employee makes what salary, and everyone knows what everyone else gets paid.

The presenters indicated that this level might not be desirable for many organizations. And this is certainly where I balked when I wrote about pay transparency before. I’ve worked in departments where everyone had access to what everyone else made, and it was a difficult environment in which to manage. That may be in part because we were not as data-driven as we purported to be—subjective factors such as performance and prior job history played a role on where employees ended up within their salary ranges.

I’m still of the opinion that most organizations are not ready for this level of pay transparency. Some might be, but they had better be ready for a lot of difficult discussions with employees.

How to Reach the Desired Level

The last aspect of the webinar I’ll mention was the emphasis by the presenters on the need for the organization’s leaders to determine their pay philosophy and set a target for where on the pay transparency spectrum they want to be to suit their culture.

It’s likely that the organization will have to evolve a step at a time. An organization that currently does not even discuss pay ranges with employees is not going to get even to Step 4 without a few years of transition.

And the more transparent a system company leaders want to have, the more they need to invest in management training. Not all managers, and not all employees, will make the transition easily. Some turnover of those whose philosophy does not align with the desired culture will happen.

The webinar was a huge help to me in defining my personal perspective. I’m somewhere between Step 3 and Step 4 in what I would personally recommend. But I can now better articulate to clients what their options are and how they could develop from where they are at present on the continuum and why they might want to change.

Where is your organization currently on the pay transparency continuum?

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