Illustration by Spencer Olson

How Salary Transparency Is Changing the Working World

#TalkPay has gone from trending Twitter topic to labor philosophy

It began with a blog post. Last year, on April 28, software engineer and author Lauren Voswinkel published a plea for workers to disclose their salaries online with the hashtag #talkpay. The first step to rooting out discriminatory hiring practices against women and minorities was to identify compensation discrepancies, she argued. And since no employer would ever willingly admit to discrimination, it was on us, the collective workforce, to disclose our salaries to one another. Having an honest conversation about compensation — in which salary figures were attached to people’s names and faces — was a necessary step toward achieving pay equality, she argued.

And amazingly, they did. People fought through the discomfort and disclosed their salary information by the thousands. Voswinkel purposefully published her piece a day before May 1, International Workers’ Day, and there were nearly 40,000 #talkpay tweets that month, according to social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon.

As with nearly all social media phenomena, the #talkpay conversation quickly subsided, but it did continue. Occasional bursts of #talkpay activity continued, Voswinkel says, with hundreds of #talkpay tweets generated in each of the following months. What started as a flurry of online discussion turned into a simmering yet sustained discussion on the merits of compensation transparency — from a trending hashtag to shorthand for discussing all pay-related issues.

And now, more than a year and half later, the #talkpay conversation has shifted from a call for individual disclosures to a wider, cultural embrace of compensation transparency.

Gravity Payments in Seattle pays a minimum salary of $70,000, just less than the median income for upper-income earners in the U.S. Media production startup Matter Studios instituted an open, tiered compensation policy earlier this year, in which everyone on a tier receives the same compensation. Social media management company Buffer has written transparency into its company values and publicly lists all employee salaries. And President Obama himself has come out against pay secrecy, signing an executive order in 2014 that prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against employees who share their salary information or encourage co-workers to do so.

“As a whole, people are now, if not more open to revealing their salaries, more willing and able to discuss the whole concept of salary transparency,” Voswinkel says. “There’s a certain zeitgeist, even without my having jumped into it, that people want to see a change.”

The power of #talkpay

There’s an inherent awkwardness to talking about money. It’s considered crass, and the whole thing is laden with awkwardness. If you have a high salary, you risk sounding like a braggart and having people resent you. If you admit to having a low one, you may feel embarrassed or worry that others will pity you.

“There’s an irony to it,” Voswinkel says. “We tout this capitalistic existence to make as much money as we can, but actually discussing our skills and worth is taboo.” #Talkpay was transgressing one of our most entrenched societal norms — one that employers have a stake in perpetuating.

Companies exploit a knowledge imbalance when doling out salaries — they know what everyone in the organization is paid, but workers only know their own salary history. Workers thus have difficulty gauging their exact market value and, as a result, often end up lowballing themselves when negotiating salaries and raises. As MEL’s own HR expert Terry Petracca admitted, the hiring manager’s prerogative is to hire talent at the lowest possible dollar amount and save her company money; it’s not her responsibility to negotiate your salary for you.

But #talkpay helps level that asymmetry and gives workers more leverage — which is why most companies hate it, if not in name, but in practice.

Google is notorious for discouraging employees from sharing salary information with one another, for example. Former Google engineer Erica Baker says her job was threatened and she was denied bonuses for circulating a spreadsheet of employees’ salaries while at the company. In 2010, Dan Auerbach created a website for the same purpose, only to have Google restrict access to it from the company network. (Neither returned requests for comment.)

Other companies resort to more explicit tactics, such as having employees sign non-disclosure agreements. More than a third of the companies surveyed in a 2001 University of Pennsylvania study had specific policies banning talks about compensation, and about 50 percent of the workers in a 2011 study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research said the practice was discouraged in their workplaces.

These practices are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act, an 81-year-old piece of legislation that affords private employees the right to engage in collective bargaining, which includes talking about pay. But few employees even know about the statute, let alone use it to seek remedies, so there’s little to deter companies from trying to silence pay talks.

The law also doesn’t apply to contract workers such as Uber drivers, making it harder for workers in the so-called gig economy establish pay standards.

It’s hard to maintain optimism about the future of #talkpay in the face of these challenges, but Voswinkel sees the beginnings of a shift in how we view labor.

Igniting a labor movement

Voswinkel’s goal for #talkpay is something even grander than pay transparency and closing any existing pay gaps.

Thus far, #talkpay has primarily been used to expose pay gaps between white male workers and women and minorities, and for individuals to negotiate better salaries for themselves. Which is great, but Voswinkel hopes #talkpay will expose exploitation of all workers and ignite the kind of full-blown labor movement America hasn’t seen in nearly 100 years (and which seems so alien to so many of today’s workers). She wrote another #talkpay piece this May, this time about the history and power of collective action instead of urging pay transparency.

“The goal of #talkpay is to get people to push back against that as a class instead of trying to make whatever personal gains they can and say, ‘Fuck you, I got mine,’” Voswinkel says. She admits that playing up the racial and gender dynamics in #talkpay was a calculated strategy for drumming up initial support.

“It was a decision to kind of temper the message to make people more open to the kind of collectively minded approaches as time went on,” she says. “The focus on normalizing the discussions was more my end goal than looking to erase gender and race pay gaps

For one, she’d like to reinstitute the 40-hour work week. Mobile devices have blurred the line between professional and personal life to the point of non-existence, leaving many workers unwittingly working 60 hour weeks and never demanding overtime pay, she says.

“There are conversations, and those conversations are becoming more normalized. So in a way, #talkpay has already been successful,” she says. “But did it achieve all my hopes and expectations? No.”