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Sacred Tenets of Employment

Thursday, October 4th, 2012 by Mike Ficco

There are a few sacred tenets of employment.  One that has been emphasized to some extent at every one of my many jobs has been that your salary is a private matter.   Most companies don’t bother to explain why – it’s just taken as common sense.  Well, something I learned many years ago is there’s nothing so uncommon as common sense.

Consider what may happen if every engineer knew the salary of their coworkers.  You may feel disenfranchised to find your boss makes three times as much as you.  You may feel betrayed if the new hire doing the same job as you makes 7% more.  You may exalt in the glory of making $10K per year more than that idiot in the other group.  The worst case scenario for the company is that you ask for a raise to get what you think is fair and quit if you don’t get it.  There may be some justification for this concern.  CEO salaries of publicly traded companies are posted in annual reports and these salaries have risen exponentially.  Clearly no company could afford engineers if the same thing happened to engineering salaries.  No corporate executive would want egocentric engineers comparing their salaries the same way CEOs do.

At many companies there is a concern, not only that dissatisfied employees will cause trouble by asking for more money, but also that the camaraderie, teamwork, and delicate chemistry of the staff will be disrupted by greed or perhaps a desire to make things right.  In short there are an infinite number of reasons why engineers, why employees in general, should not share their salary information.  It’s just common sense.

But wait…

Government employees have not gotten a raise in three years and, while exact salaries are not known, their service levels usually are.  To my knowledge there has been no mass exodus of government employees because of this and the teamwork is certainly no worse than that of private companies.

But wait again…

The Washington Nationals baseball team just finished the season with the best record in the major leagues.  Not only that, to a man they say the team has great chemistry and they all seem to love their manager and the organization.  By observation, they seem happy, showering each other with beer, champagne, and an occasional shaving cream pie.  Truth be told, I really can do without a shaving cream pie at work…

All this despite the fact that their salaries are public, published this week in the Washington Post, and they all know how much their teammates make.  A relative new hire (24 year old 2012 all star Stephen Strasburg) makes $3,000,000 while a journeyman that spent most of the season in the minors gets $5,000,000.  A 2012 all star (Ian Desmond) gets $512,500 while a 33 year old non-all star gets $13,000,000.

In my mind this calls into question a fundamental tenet of the engineering workplace, no, of all workplaces.  It seems that good management and clear goals are far more important than keeping your neighbor’s salary a secret.



8 Responses to “Sacred Tenets of Employment”

  1. Bob Price says:

    You’re looking for sense in the workplace?

  2. mspike says:

    It would be nice to get a company where engineers and other “really” working people would get the big money, and managers would get less 😀 I mean if you really consider now the guys adding the real value, are getting the less part of the pie… 😀
    Please note, that I don’t want to demote the importance of the management, it’s just crazy that in most of the big companies the management lane has far better carrier options than engineering one…

    • Mike Ficco says:

      Well, there is no question that dealing with people is much more of a pain in the butt than dealing with technology. For example, I’ve never had a piece of technology purposefully be difficult but I certainly can’t say that about people. In that sense, managers deserve high pay – even if the number of people capable of managing people is far greater than the number of people who can manipulate complex technology.

      One thing that I think is outrageously ironic is how so many companies advertise their technology, their engineers, and their engineering. You know, I’ve worked for more than 30 companies and in every single one the business men made the final decisions. I wonder how positively such advertisements would be viewed if the typical consumer understood how very little power was held by the engineers and how very few decisions were made by the engineers. As I documented in my book, executives ordered me to ship junk, told me the Internet was a fad, and often blocked the incorporation of new features in a product until the competition had them – then ordered the features rushed into production.

      All my years of observation come down to a simple difference between those that rise to the top of companies and give orders and those that follow the orders – “personality”. Some people are simply less aggressive and tend to follow orders, even bad ones. Others simply demand to be in charge and demand to give orders. Oh, by the way, nowhere in this personality thing is there a connection to knowledge and talent. Yes, sadly, lots of morons are giving orders.

  3. Seb says:

    Finally, I have spent some time thinking about this.
    I would think it would be really fair if everyone knew the exact money of the others, then one could decide for themselfes if they get paid right or should earn more.

    Its of course way better to have some nice balance between time for work ( usually 8 hours, which I think is way too much ) and time for personal ideas and projects, and of course freidns family etc..

    This all has to be concidered when comparing salaries.

    And then up to the next thought, going into countries with salaries under 500 $ a month, and still thsoe people live a normal happy life.

    Money should never be the reason for doing something, it should be the respect earned by doing something good. And I think really everyone knows when doing good and bad, but way too often one acts selfishly for his own good… help me darwin :)

  4. Mike says:

    Keeping salaries secret only benefits the employer. Think about it. The employer can continue to underpay high performers and overpay poor performers without having to deal with any backlash from the employees.

    If on day one, you were introduced to your co-workers as Jack, making $x and the existing employees’ had their salaries divulged to you, that whole uneasy feeling that *maybe* you were getting screwed would go right out the door.

    How cool would it be for employees to see that “Joe” got a nice raise after breaking his back for 6 months on that now-successful make-or-break project, or how “Jim” the goof-off got little or nothing.

    Aside on raises: every one getting the same (usually) paltry x% is just disheartening. No one did a better job than the next guy? No one took on more responsibility as the year unfolded? It’s a sick, union-like mentality.

    As far as managers go, a good manager is definitely worth spending a good chunk of change on. There are so FEW of them (good one that is) and in theory, they should be amplifying their employee’s productivity – this is where their true value comes from.

  5. Ashleigh says:

    It’s a cultural thing.

    In some countries, all the employees blab and all know each others salaries. And yes, that can lead to salary escalation demands.

    In Australia, when I worked for the govt, all salaries were published (tied to a level) and the organisation chart showed all the levels and the people in them. So everyone knew what everyone else got paid. I’m not really sure it was a big deal.

    I tend to agree with the notion that secret salaries benefit employers.

  6. David says:

    It seems to me that if there wasn’t the push for secrecy of everyone’s salary, then there would probably be less of a concern about differences. I like knowing that I’m getting paid roughly the same as what others are, it lets me know that I’m not being taken advantage of. In Canada we have some major crown corporation (owned by the government) that make every salary public. It was exciting to see how much my boss made, because there was no reason why I couldn’t have made it to that position someday. It was also one of the happiest workplaces I’ve ever been in.

    Personally, I feel that less secrecy = happiness.

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