The Trouble with Secrets

What you don't know often hurts you

19 May 2014

Harvard Business Review, among many top-tier publications, recently featured an article about the termination of Jill Abramson, the former executive director of the New York Times. Most articles about Ms Abramson’s demise at the paper focus on issues of her management style and a claim that she was paid substantially less than her male predecessor. I do not know if either claim is accurate. As I write this there are reports appearing that suggest the New York Times asserts the opposite to be true.

If we had a bit more transparency many of these issues would simply cease to exist.

"Privileged" information has a tendency to incur unintended consequences. Let's use Jill Abramson as an example. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the claims of salary inequality are true. That can exist for but one reason--no one knows her salary but Jill herself and the NY Times leadership.

In the United States, it has been the law that there be equal pay regardless of gender since 1963. 1-9-6-3! The best estimates out there in 2014 indicate that a substantial gender pay gap still exists. It's been 50 years and we still struggle with this. Where one inequality exists it has been my experience that other, unseen ones, do as well.

Let’s make wages public information and be done with this. Really. All of them. Once and for all let's squash the inequality. There are numerous laws that require equality and equity in pay but they are impossible to enforce because the data needed to enforce them is proprietary. Complicating this matter is the fact that many people are required to sign employment contracts that stipulate that they will not discuss their salary with anyone.

This idea does not originate with me. It’s been around quite a while and The Atlantic did a nice summation of it a couple of years ago:

In the United States, if you are a white male, you will, statistically, earn more than any other gender or ethnicity for doing similar work at a similar level. This is possible because it's lawful to withhold the information required to enforce the existing laws on pay equality. Clearly, after 50 years, we are not going to solve this problem with lip service alone. Also obvious is the fact that unscrupulous employers hide behind this veil of secrecy and perpetuate the problem.

In the business world we have enough ethical failings to overcome without having to defend ourselves from accusations that we pay women less than men for doing the same job. There's no place for this in 2014.

The last thoughts I'll leave you with:

  • Think of the outrageous bonuses paid to Wall Street minions, especially the ones that materially participated in the Great Recession
  • Consider that the First Officer of your flight, the one flying the plane on a stormy, low-visibility night, may make less than a Walmart associate and literally work twice as many hours
  • Ruminate on the fact that if you are short, fat, blonde, bald, the wrong gender, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong age, tattooed if you are female, pierced if you are male, a single mother or father, LGBT, or have a whole slew of other even marginally "different" characteristics, it is quite possible that you make less than a white, non-pierced, non-tattooed, heterosexual male doing the same job
  • Notice that skill, intelligence, and job performance were never mentioned in any of the above

People who work with me know that I focus quite heavily on getting to core issues and problems and shoving the extraneous, the distracting, and the downright time-wasting things aside. In business, there are never enough hours in the day and spending time on things that don't create value or solve real-world problems is pointless and, sometimes, the root cause of a destruction of a business.

I have to put pay inequality in this camp. "Common knowledge" may try to teach us that the pennies saved by pay inequality are profits in the bank. The problem with "Common knowledge" is that it rarely takes into account intangibles and follow-on costs. Unhappy staff, higher turnover, higher insurance premiums, the cost of defending against lawsuits, and the possibility of highly damaging reporting by the news media.

Why we continue to do this perplexes me.

#Management #Leadership #HR