Photo: Getty.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.