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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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Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition