What Is Pay Transparency & Why Does It Matter?

by Lydia Frank

Pay Transparency

Negotiating your salary is never easy, but what makes it particularly difficult for a lot of people is the lack of transparency with which many employers approach the topic of compensation. The negotiation process can take on the feel of a poker game rather than an informed discussion on the value of a given role. But, if you walk out of a pay negotiation still wondering if you’re being compensated fairly, that’s not a win for anyone involved – not you and not your employer.

In fact, according to the PayScale 2015 Compensation Best Practices Report, “seeking higher pay elsewhere” was the top reason that most employees gave for leaving their company. However, PayScale also found in a recent survey that most employees don’t actually know how they’re being paid relative to the market. And, if they guess wrong, they’re usually guessing they’re underpaid. So companies who guard information about employee compensation too closely may lose their best people not because they’re underpaying necessarily, but because they didn’t have better communication around compensation.

What Pay Transparency Is & Is Not

Being more transparent about pay doesn’t have to mean posting everyone’s salary for all to see, though there are some companies that go that far. What it does mean is employees having an understanding of their company’s compensation philosophy, strategies and practices. What labor market is the company competing in for talent? (In some cases, it may be more than one. For positions that are in high-demand, the company may decide to go up market to compete against bigger, local companies for talent.) Is the company aiming to meet or exceed the competition when it comes to pay? What compensation data sources does the company use to evaluate the market? What is the range for your position at your company and where do you fall within it? How are raises determined / awarded?

There are different levels of transparency and each company is going to fall somewhere along a spectrum, but pressure is definitely building for companies to become more transparent with employees about pay to a larger degree.

Just in the last year, we’ve seen an incredible amount of media coverage on pay transparency, from the Google employee who created a spreadsheet for Google workers to share their salaries to the Gravity Payments CEO who set the minimum salary at his company to $70,000/year. There was even a Twitter campaign, using the hashtag #TalkPay, encouraging people to openly share their current and former salaries.

Why Does Pay Transparency Matter?

Beyond just making salary negotiations easier on everyone, pay transparency has some other major benefits as well for both employees and employers.
First, it can help ensure that workers are being paid equitably for equal work. If there are fewer secrets surrounding salaries, it becomes much harder for any pay inequities to arise. That’s better for workers in terms of fairness, and it protects employers from potential lawsuits. Even the U.S. government is moving toward better transparency. The Department of Labor recently ruled that federal contractors may not discriminate against workers who discuss pay. According to a press release, “Under the rule, federal contractors and subcontractors may not fire or discriminate against employees for discussing, disclosing, or inquiring about their own pay or that of their co-workers. The rule also protects pay discussions by job applicants.”

Second, it builds trust. When employees feel valued, and aren’t spending cycles thinking about whether they might be underpaid, they’re more likely to be more fully engaged in their work. We know from countless studies that a more engaged workforce leads to better business outcomes. And, when PayScale studied the link between pay and employee engagement, we found “that one of the top predictors of employee sentiment, including ‘satisfaction’ and ‘intent to leave,’ was a company’s ability to communicate clearly about compensation. In fact, open and honest discussion around pay was found to be more important than typical measures of employee engagement, such as career advancement opportunities, employer appreciation and future enthusiasm for the company.”

Companies that are truly committed to retaining and supporting their best employees are going to move in the direction of more transparency. Full transparency? Maybe not. But the standard best practice is going to shift from where it is today. It has to.

Lydia Frank

About the Author
Lydia Frank is the Editorial & Marketing Director for PayScale.com. While at PayScale, she has collaborated with a number of media partners—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Today Show, Money Magazine, The Huffington Post, Business Insider, The Chronicle of Higher Education—to showcase PayScale’s data around topics like college alumni career outcomes, the gender pay gap and underemployment. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and previously led editorial teams for both MSN.com and About.com, covering topics including careers, education, technology and personal finance.