The Viability of Banning Salary Negotiations

There may be better ways to ensure higher pay isn't only for better bargainers

By Joanne Sammer Jul 10, 2015
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When Internet company Reddit decided in April 2015 to ban all salary negotiations for both new hires and existing employees, the move garnered a wave of media reporting—and social media discussion.

Although Reddit is not the only company to adopt this policy, the difference is that Reddit tied its salary negotiation ban to an effort to close the pay gap between male and female employees. The fact that Reddit’s then-CEO Ellen Pao had just lost a high-profile gender discrimination lawsuit against a Silicon Valley venture capital firm gave the announcement particular significance. Three months later, Pao resigned as interim CEO under pressure, with some lauding her as a fighter against sexism while others charged her with mismanagement during her controversial eight-month tenure.

Regardless of Pao’s troubles, her decision to ban salary negotiations fired up the conversation about pay disparities. Now, it is fair to ask some key questions about the viability of this no-negotiation approach to compensation.

Reddit, which has about 70 employees, operates in the Internet/technology space in Silicon Valley. Although the company had operated with an informal no-negotiation policy, it was Pao who tied it to the gender pay gap. “She provided more structure to the way it works and formalized the policy,” according to Heather Wilson, a company spokeswoman.

Under the formal policy, Reddit offers new hires and employees set salaries based on competitive market rates for the positions they hold. “The employee is given a choice within that salary to select either more pay or more equity,” Wilson noted. “But the number is the same, just the make-up of pay-to-equity can be determined by the employee.”

Although Reddit is open to changing the policy in the future if circumstances change, “so far it seems to be working quite well,” Wilson said. “Reddit is known as a good place to work and has a strong internal culture, and the pay policy is a part of setting that culture and is in line with the company's core values.”

No Negotiating = Better Relationships?

Any effort to ban salary negotiations inevitably raises questions about the impact on recruitment. Does banning negotiations place an employer at a disadvantage in the hiring process?

For Reddit, the reaction has been positive. “Since news of the policy has spread, Reddit has seen an uptick in candidates seeking to work at the company citing the policy,” according to Wilson.

Gender aside, there are plenty of people who are uncomfortable negotiating and who could be attracted to an organization where negotiating salary is not expected. Perhaps that is why other organizations have also had success in hiring after banning negotiations.

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Plenty of people, women and men, are
uncomfortable negotiating pay.
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Fathom Healthcare, a Valley View, Ohio-based firm that provides marketing services for hospitals and health systems, has banned salary negotiations but not as a way to close pay gaps. The company simply sees negotiating as a negative in the employment relationship.

Negotiating salary “starts the [employment] relationship on a note of distrust and dishonesty,” said Bill Balderaz, president of Fathom Healthcare. “If the company leads with a lower number than it is willing to pay, it is saying, ‘I think you are worth x, but I'm going to offer y and see if you'll take it.’ ”

On the other side of the table, Balderaz sees candidates who name one salary level but settle for another as “leading with a lie.”

To avoid this, Balderaz suggested that employers make only one best and final offer, based on a fair level of compensation. Fathom Healthcare, which has about 40 employees, has had its no-negotiation policy in place since its inception in 2006 and has made 60 or more hires at different levels and with different skill sets since then, with no trouble attracting candidates, according to Balderaz.

Balderaz noted that the company’s decision to make exceptions to the no-negotiation policy for a few candidates over the years has demonstrated the value of the ban. “We made a handful of exceptions in the early days and regretted it each time,” he said. “Salary negotiations inherently set a tone of distrust and [establish an] us-vs.-them attitude.”

Transparency Is Key

In announcing Reddit’s policy, Pao specifically highlighted the idea that the no-negotiation policy would help close the gender pay gap. Her rationale is that women are uncomfortable negotiating pay, frequently don’t negotiate at all and are often perceived negatively when they do negotiate.

Yet some critics of salary negotiation bans argue that these employers are fighting the wrong battle, and they’ve pointed out that the pay gap battle is not limited to gender. Significant pay gaps also exist for black and Hispanic workers, for instance, regardless of gender.

“You have women and people of color who are historically underpaid relative to their white male counterparts,” said Fatimah Gilliam, founder and CEO of The Azara Group, a leadership consulting firm in New York City. “I understand the intent to want to equalize things but I do not believe that the answer is to ban negotiation altogether.”

Moreover, banning salary negotiations does not necessarily guarantee fairness. There is nothing stopping an organization or certain managers from continuing to make higher, nonnegotiated pay offers to some applicants and not to others.

That is why some argue that increasing the transparency surrounding market-based pay levels is the more pressing need. “What enables people to get more money is having a better sense of what companies are paying,” said Gilliam. “If companies simply ban salary negotiations, they instantly have even more leverage. Saying that you cannot negotiate your compensation just limits the amount of leverage you have as a candidate to advocate for yourself.”

While certainly not widespread, some employers are starting to open the compensation books. Social media company Buffer publishes its open equity formula online, including an explanation of each element used to set pay and equity levels and a spreadsheet listing the compensation level and value for all 37 employees, as well as salary and equity formulas and calculations. This transparency effort began last year with the disclosure of the salaries of all employees.

Joanne Sammer is a New Jersey-based business and financial writer.

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