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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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear