If you want to see the color drain from somebody’s face, ask them how much money they make — it’s one of the great taboos of American culture.
At the marketing analytics company SumAll, however, the question will be seen more as a matter of inefficiency: Why can’t you just consult the Google doc?
Since it was founded five years ago by tech entrepreneur Dane Atkinson, SumAll has made it company-wide policy to publish employees’ full salaries, stock and all. It began as a simple way to avoid dishonesty, but it has since morphed into a unifying productivity booster that keeps people around, Atkinson says.
“It’s very easy to lie in our industry and make a lot of profit and not even cross a legal boundary,” he tells Business Insider. “We wanted to make sure that even if the management got taken out for one reason or another, that the company culture would persist against that kind of evil.”
Compared to most corporate cultures, where secrecy can lead to stark pay gaps, SumAll’s culture emphasizes meritocracy. People are generally paid what they’d get paid elsewhere, and if an interviewer learns the market is paying a premium, SumAll adjusts accordingly.
Atkinson says this has led to annual turnover rates below 10% and widespread collaboration between teams. When data scientists learned how much engineers made, for example, they came to appreciate how much engineering costs the company as a whole and worked a little longer to lighten the company’s load.
“They think of themselves as a larger single entity and not these little fiefdoms,” Atkinson tells Business Insider.
Some of the biggest issues facing companies don’t exist at SumAll, he says. People aren’t stewing over a peer making $10,000 more than them. If they feel wronged somehow, they can bring it to management to hear the explanation.
Atkinson admits this constant call to justify how the business operates is “horrible” from a time-investment perspective. At most of his past companies, he’d spend about a third of his time dealing with external investors; for this he spends an equivalent amount of time “just explaining why we’re doing things all the time to our team.”
“It’s the highest tax for being transparent,” he says. “You can’t just go hire somebody at thirty percent more than everyone else is making without spending a week explaining why the company needs to make that decision.”
But from Atkinson’s perspective, it’s all worthwhile. The work of making people feel at ease comes back in spades when people realize a colleague goes to conferences on the weekends or finishes projects earlier, and then ups their own game.
“A huge portion of humanity thinks they’re better than they really are,” he says. While it can be hard for people to come to terms with their dollar-value rank, they quickly up their game to stay competitive. “After you get through that transition … you get a lot of motivation, a lot of hard work, huge reduction in bureaucracy.”
On several occasions, Atkinson says he’s had managers come to him advocating for a shy but deserving team member to get a raise. At other companies, the person unwilling to self-promote may stay undervalued. At SumAll, Atkinson says, that person has a better shot of having their worth recognized.
A lingering challenge is ensuring fair pay across genders and ethnicities.
Even with their salaries freely available, Atkinson has found female and minority staff members don’t speak up about small differences, and that men may flat-out lie about past work experience. A recent internal survey found women who listed a six-month stint on their resume really did tend to work at the job for six months. Men, however, were more likely to turn that six months into a year.
“If we’re looking at the salary audits of organizations, it’s usually a tenure-based salary comparison,” Atkinson says. “So the fundamental is actually a lie.”
He says the company still tries to pay people fairly based on a merit system, but adds that differences in who promotes their work most often — men, typically — make it more of a challenge to ensure quieter forms of success still get reflected through pay. So the system still isn’t perfect.
In the meantime, his hope is that all companies — and even the US as a whole — will adopt salary transparency as the norm. In Sweden and Norway, for example, anyone can request anyone else’s tax returns. Many experts say the countries’ high levels of trust between citizens and the government (and citizens themselves) are part and parcel of that system.
“The unwinding of the secrets and the mistakes and skeletons in the closet is not an easy thing to do,” Atkinson says. “But in the end, it’s kind of crazy that in America, which is founded on this capitalistic vision of meritocracy, that we’ve obfuscated one of the core components of it.”