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The spreadsheet Google doesn't want shared

According to an ex-employee, around 5 per cent of the company's staff have shared their salaries on an internal database, and the bosses aren't happy about it. 

Earlier this year, one of Google’s senior vice presidents released a kind of self-help book for the workplace. Titled Work Rules!, it came with all the primary colours, tradition-breaking and enthusiasm we’ve come to expect from the tech giant.

Positive messages included the notion that work should be enjoyable, since we spend such a large chunk of our lives there - hence Google's free cafeterias, hammocks, and rooftop minigolf courses. Less encouragingly, Laszlo Bock, the book’s author and head of “People Operations” at the company, explained that Google prides itself on “paying unfairly”:

There have been situations where one person received a stock award of $10,000, and another working in the same area received $1,000,000. This isn't the norm, but the range of rewards at almost any level can easily vary by 300% to 500%, and even then there is plenty of room for outliers.”

The tactic, he claims, fits with recent research into performance, which found that 26 per cent of “output” comes from the top 5 per cent of workers. A better performer, he reasons, should be rewarded far more than the average worker. 

Well, as madcap and progressive as this sounds, it seems that Google employees aren’t as on board with this as Bock, and his fellow management, might like. Last week, ex-employee Erica Baker described over a series of 20-odd tweets how she and a group of other staff set up a spreadsheet (a Google Doc, we assume) to share salary information. It soon caught on across the company, and, when categorised by job type and gender, allegedly revealed some pretty unflattering things about the “pay unfairly” policy. (You can see Baker's tweets in sequence here.)

Baker reckons that by the time she left the company and passed the reins of the spreadsheet to a colleague, around 5 per cent of Google's US staff had entered their details. In the US, as in the UK, the sharing of salary information by employees is protected by law. But Baker's bosses weren't impressed: 

Other employees began sending her “peer bonuses” (at Google, staff can nominate each other for $150 bonuses, which are added onto their monthly paychecks).  Baker claims that these were rejected or blocked by her manager. Colleagues, meanwhile, were successfully negotiating new salaries based on information from the spreadsheet – though not, generally, when they actually brought the spreadsheet itself up with their bosses. 

Baker's story is, of course, difficult to verify. In a statement to Quartz, Google's press office said that it doesn't comment on individual employees, but that the company does regularly analyse salaries and performance to ensure that there's no pay gap. And, of course, “employees are free to share their salaries with one another if they choose”.

Baker doesn't imply that the episode drove her to leave the company, and it seems that the database is still alive and well somewhere, helping other employees wrangle pay rises. But the whole episode emphasises a real problem with the "pay unfairly" policy: underperformers, or even average performers, will lose motivation if they know that their peers are far better compensated for their efforts than they are. Google's apparent dislike of pay transparency implies that they've clocked onto this, and office harmony relies on a culture of silence. 

Baker ended her rant with a reference to a recent Google Doodle (those little pictures that replace the Google logo on the main search page) of Ida Wells, Civil Rights campaigner and suffragist:

And she would, no doubt, have been a big fan of the pay transparency spreadsheet. 

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.