A few months ago, the designers at Zeta initiated a crowdsourced survey to aggregate salary information, in an attempt to bring transparency to the design compensation landscape in India. (The results came out a few weeks ago. You can check it out here.)
It’s high time — isn’t it? — for pay transparency. Yet, it’s no surprise that the public has divergent opinions on this — mainly from two contrasting groups.
The first group are those opposed to the survey. Let’s call them Design Capitalists. They say things like this:
“If salary bands are revealed, companies will stop offering lucrative packages to poach quality talent.”
“Transparency will eventually lead to standardisation. Design will become like a government job. Why should I work hard, or up my game, in that case? What happens to healthy competition and merit?”
Let’s take a second to understand this perspective. Their argument is two-fold.
One: If everything is out in the open, both employees and employers will be aware of the standard salary range. This makes it much harder for a Design Capitalist to demand a 50% hike on their already inflated salary. (Did I mention people who make this argument are usually already being overpaid?)
Two: If I’m getting paid the same amount as my ‘lazier’ colleague, what incentive do I have to work hard?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way — the arguments reek of privilege. They remind me of a certain flawed movement, birthed by Ayn Rand in the 1950s, called Objectivism, which glorified the virtue of selfishness and attributed excellence to ability alone. It doesn’t consider circumstances of birth, or vast differences in privilege and opportunity.
There seems to be no empathy for peers who are probably getting lowballed and exploited by sneaky employers. This is both ironic and hypocritical for an industry that preaches empathy as a matter of pride.
Next, this line of thinking heroes compensation as a yardstick for growth. The value of craft ceases to matter. Learning ceases to matter. The intangible benefits of the job also fade away into the background. When your primary barometer for growth is compensation, it leaves very little leeway to progress in other areas — money is all that matters.
By now, you can see where I’m going with this metaphor. In contrast, we have the Design Communist.
“Hiding salaries only benefits employers, while keeping employees in the dark about significant pay gaps in the industry.”
The Communists argue that rather than trying to create further divides and inequality in the industry, we should band together as a community to create an environment of fairness.
“When I was a rookie designer, I had no idea how much salary I could ask for. If things are out in the open, I’ll know if I’m being underpaid.”
When you don’t know if you’re being paid less, you cannot negotiate for higher pay. On revealing salary bands, companies should no longer be able to lowball prospective talent. Not to mention there are considerable benefits of transparency on the gender pay gap, minority groups and on overall employee goodwill.
But, where is the context?
Pay transparency applies only to the numbers. However, there are cases where various factors determine why an individual’s salary can be higher. It could be something simple like geography, cost of living, or working conditions — to something more complex, private and specific to an individual.
When numbers are released without their underlying stories, anomalies start to appear. This has the potential to create discontentment and rifts among employees.
Now comes the inevitable question from the Capitalists. In such a scenario, what happens to nurturing genius? Are we stifling growth because we set arbitrary constraints in compensation?
It’s easy to say money is evil — but after all, no one works for free. Money is the measure that we, as a society, have collectively decided on. That is why we’re paid in rupees, not sacks of rice. That is why we use money as reward and incentive e.g. bonuses for better performance. Going by that logic, what’s wrong with using it to stimulate young, hungry designers in the workforce to give it their all? Who are we to stop them from smashing the so-called salary ceiling?
There is certainly no right answer here. At least, I haven’t been able to decide on one (although you might have guessed which way I’m leaning). The point is to offer two very distinct perspectives and stir up a debate.
Talk to more people about this. Ask them what they think. Weigh the pros and cons. It might be tricky to pick a side, but let’s at least have this conversation.