The pros and cons of employees making a salary-transparent database

How much is everyone around you getting paid? This is a question many of us at work privately wonder, and now, a group of TV professionals actually get to find out.

On Tuesday, an anonymous Google spreadsheet was being shared widely for entertainment employees, such as writers, assistants, script coordinators, and producers, to share their actual salaries and pilot quotes. The form lets employees see how much their peers could be earning by their gender, race, years of experience, title, and employer, among other factors. The unnamed author of the document called the initiative a “good faith project” that would helpful for employees to “cross check” information they may already have.

The pay-transparency initiative follows a report of huge gender pay gaps between actors. According to the Hollywood Reporter, actress Michelle Williams made nearly ten times less than her costar Mark Wahlberg for the movie “All the Money in the World” — $625,000 for her work to  Wahlberg’s $5 million. Pay-transparency databases aim to stop these gaps by letting more people know what’s a typical standard of pay.

Some states, including New York and California, have made their own regulations to address the gender pay gap by making it illegal for a company to prevent its employees from discussing their pay. For employees lacking legal safeguards, however, making an online database is one method to discreetly gather information about your salary, so that you can make better informed decisions about your career.

Before you decide to make your own pay-transparency database about your workplace, there are pros and cons you should consider:

Pro: shared online documents reach more people

The medium that hosts the information informs the message. By sharing pay information through collaborative online documents, employees can keep their identities private while spreading the knowledge publicly and quickly.

Reporting on why political activists choose Google spreadsheets to share information over other technologies like blogs, journalist Ann Friedman noted a Google Document’s 100-person edit limit, which caps how many people can share information: “a Google Doc can be technically public while functionally quite private, allowing members of a like-minded community to reach beyond their immediate friends and collaborators while avoiding the abuse and trolling that comes with publishing on other platforms. This makes shared documents an appealing way to pass along information you want to be more open about but don’t necessarily want to blast across the internet.”

Whatever collaboration tool you use, the most important benefit to sharing a spreadsheet online is that it allows people outside of the people you may know to benefit. Whisper networks are known to exclude vulnerable, emerging professionals who lack strong networks informing them what’s a good salary. Public pay databases change that.

Pro: research-backed improvement in employee work ethic

Economic research is also on the side of making employee’s pay public. One study found that knowing your coworker’s salary drove workers to be more productive. In the study of 2,000 workers, economics professor Emiliano Huet-Vaughn found that when people were given information about how much their colleagues earned, they worked harder to complete tasks.

The finding backs up a separate study that found pay secrecy was linked to a decline in employee performance and a company’s retention rate of high performers.

Con: publicly doing this can be costly to your career

Being publicly tied to a pay-transparency database can backfire, however. Erica Joy Baker, a former Google employee who now works at Patreon, conducted a salary transparency experiment in 2015 to spread information about pay gaps at Google. Creating an internal spreadsheet, Baker said she got 5% of the company’s employees to participate, and it led to people getting raises.

But even though her actions were not illegal, Baker said she faced pushback from higher-ups in the company, citing meetings with her manager and superiors who were “pissed” and refused to interact with her.

Google, which is currently being investigated for its pay practices by the Labor Department, did not comment specifically on Baker, but noted the company regularly ran “analysis of compensation, promotion, and performance to ensure that they are equitable with no pay gap.”

Many people can be the beneficiaries of a pay-transparency database, but Baker’s story shows us that if you’re the public creator of one, you’ll be exposed to blowback and may need to be prepared to face harm to your reputation.