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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 a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.