jade rubick

Implementing pay equity


A friend of mine became the first woman VP of Engineering in a mid-sized startup. She was hiring a Director of Engineering in her organization. When she asked HR for guidance on what to pay him, she was horrified to learn that the standard rate for a Director 1 (3 levels below her) was above what she was getting paid as a VP of Engineering.

Imagine how she felt about the company after that. Almost every woman or person of color I’ve talked with has shared similar stories.

Nowadays, people routinely crowd-source salary information. If your salary system isn’t rock-solid, it will burn trust, and your employees will go to better companies. On the other hand, if you want to have people knocking on the door to work at your company, you will implement pay equity. It’s by far the most effective method I’ve seen to encourage a diverse, healthy workplace.

Most companies have bands for salaries. This allows managers to have discretion on how much of a raise people get, or where in the band people sit. Pay equity is paying everyone at a certain level the same amount.

Implementing is both challenging, and not that difficult. The easiest way to implement this is to set a midpoint of the previous bands, and make that the default salary for that band. Move everyone up to the midpoint if they are below the midpoint, if you can afford to. All future promotions go up to the next midpoint level.

What is nice about this is that it eliminates a big source of bias. I’ve reviewed the pay of every organization I’ve been a part of, and almost every time, I see evidence of bias. Because there is usually a higher bar for promotions than for giving people raises, you’ll automatically have a more objective, less bias prone system. Eliminating manager pay discretion removes bias.

Depending on where your company is at, it may be as easy as that (although there are some complications, see below).

If you have a newer engineering organization, you may not have pay scales, or standard engineering levels. You can do this in stages (one per quarter if you want!). Here are the stages:

Q1: Create engineering levels.

  1. There are a lot of examples to steal from, such as the Rent the Runway engineering levels.
  2. At Gremlin, we chose to have 4 titles: Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer, Lead Software Engineer, and Principal Software Engineer. And then we made 3 levels within each, 1, 2, and 3. So a level might be something like Senior Software Engineer 2.
  3. Start using these for your new hires.
  4. Map your existing team to the levels. Don’t worry about salary yet — just focus on where they belong in the levels. You can start off doing this secretly, to test out your levels and improve them. Then finalize it and publish them, and tell everyone what level they are.
  5. Start using them during promotions, to make things more objective.

Q2: Create standard salaries for each level.

  1. For each engineering level, you’ll need to determine a salary. Work with HR to develop these. First start by looking at where you’ve placed people, and what their current salaries are. HR may have a salary tool you can use. In my experience, they are still sources of bias, because you can fiddle with the tool until you get the results you want. But they can be useful to baseline.
  2. I like having about $10K bumps in salary for every level. This leads to more frequent promotions, which makes the promotions less high-stakes. I’ve seen some evidence from an analysis at a previous company that suggest that high-stakes promotions go more poorly for URMs. Having more frequent promotions can help eliminate that. I’ve also heard so many horror stories from big tech companies that have large jumps between levels that smaller jumps have become something I recommend.
  3. Review the salary bands until you’re comfortable using them to hire people.
  4. Decide if you’re going to do geo-adjustment or not, or have differences between different types of engineering roles. I generally think it’s best to minimize these type of adjustments, but there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides. (This is probably a good topic for a future blog post)
  5. Now do a compensation check, and see if you notice any egregious disparities in people’s salaries. Correct anything you notice, always only by moving people up, not moving people down. Although I have heard of cases where people agreed to a salary reduction, the way I’ve always done it is to freeze someone at the rate they are at until they get their next promotion. An alternate way to do it is to have a much lower cost of living adjustment rate until they hit the standard pay scale. So for example, they may only get a 2% raise until they are at band. In general, you want to adjust this quickly, not over years, so the simplest way to do it is to freeze raises until they’re promoted, or to do a cost of living adjustment that gets everyone below band to the mid-point.
  6. For all future promotions, make the promotion be to the next salary level.
  7. If you’re at a startup, you’ll probably want to think about equity as well.

    1. This gets complicated really fast, but I recommend working with your finance person and HR person on this. Typically, the earlier you join the company, the more equity you get. So what I’ve done is go through and keep track of what stage of funding each employee came in at.
    2. Ask your finance person if they can create equity tables for your salary bands, so you have a standard equity package you offer. Equitable equity FTW.
    3. The best example of this I’ve seen is from Daryl Allen’s writeup on the “implied value” method for equity distribution.

Q3: Define a promotion process and evaluate people periodically.

  1. I’m not going to go into details of how that should work.
  2. Just make sure you promote people into the next band each time.
  3. One complication you may find is that some people are paid so well with the old screwed up system that they wouldn’t get a salary bump at all. I’ve usually resolved that by giving them a much smaller salary bump, but still giving them something. Generally, there is enough of a mess in your salary tables that your goal should be to make it equitable as quickly as you can, over time, and for all new people.

I’ve run into a few obstacles and issues implementing pay equity:

Pay equity ties your hands for negotiation during hiring. Candidates don’t expect a system like this. They will try to negotiate salary. The way to work around that is to be really upfront with people about the hiring process and how pay works at your company. At Gremlin we’ve put it in our candidate packet, so people know about it during the hiring process (this can also be a chance to explain what’s great about your company, and the philosophy behind these choices). People are often relieved or impressed when they find that they don’t have to worry about being paid fairly.

This does make assessing the level of someone incredibly important. But I think that puts the pressure in the right place. You’re assessing the amount of impact this person will have on the company, and paying them fairly for that. One trick here can be to have a VP take on the job of leveling people. When a hiring manager is pitching to hire a candidate, they should have to justify that person’s level versus other people in the organization at that level.

You’ll sometimes face internal pressures from the hiring manager, or especially with recruiters. “This person seems great, and they have another offer that is 10K higher than what we offer. Can’t we match it?”. People really like the flexibility of being able to offer more to get the candidate they perceive as highly valuable. It can be difficult to resist this. You can sometimes use signing bonuses to work around objections here, but mostly you just need to stick to your guns.

A better approach is to use your rejected offers as a signal. If you start seeing that your offers are getting turned down, you can use that now as a signal your salary bands need revisiting. Approach it systematically.

This is only eventually fair. Unless you’re able to move everyone to the midpoint salary point, you’re going to have an unfair system for a while. What you’ve done is made it eventually fair. If you have a standard of living raise, you can try to use that to bring people to the new salary levels.

Sometimes history is complicated. There can be an employee who got a lot of shares but a low salary. How do you treat them fairly? In the worst case, you can special case them, but I’ve not had to do that so far. The equity article I mention above has a novel and effective way for being fair with equity, so I would argue you should use that method, and then normalize their salary to the new bands.

It can be difficult to implement for some roles. You’ll find pay equity easiest to implement if you have a lot of people in those roles. If you only have a single person in that role, it’s much harder to design a fair system, and it may not be the best use of time. Decide on a threshold for when you’ll implement pay equity, and stick to it.

Your organizational politics matter. You’ll need to work closely with People Operations / HR to implement these practices. You may find they’re enthusiastic supporters of it, or they may be reluctant. Ideally this is done throughout the company, but if you don’t have strong enough support to do so, don’t let that stop you.

If you have experience implementing pay equity, please reach out to me, as I’m interested in networking with other individuals who have experience with it. I’m also available to help organizations that want to make these changes, as an advisor.

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