Equal Pay: How To Do Right By Your Employees – An Interview with Carrie Gracie

You probably say you believe in equal pay. But are you willing to inconvenience yourself for it?” Carrie Gracie – Equal: A Story of Women, Men & Money – (2019 – P.24)

Equal pay in practice can be messy and complex, but we don’t believe it has to be. Communication continues to serve as the saving grace for employers and yet, we continue to see cases of employers avoiding, rather than embracing equal pay. It’s time for that to change.

There’s no greater way to learn how to deal with pay equality claims confidently, than from examples of erroneous practice. When it comes to equal pay, there’s no clearer example of the issue being handled clumsily, than the BBC’s recent journey with the award winning  journalist and previous China Editor, Carrie Gracie.

Carrie was thrown into an equal pay battle by the revelations of top salaries at the media company in 2017. This transparency brought into light the fact that, despite specifically requesting equal pay upon her appointment for the China Editor role, her pay was more than £65,000 (at least) short of Jon Sopel’s who held the equivalent role for North America.

“If this had been about my case alone, I would certainly have drawn a line under it… But I knew this pay system was costing life-changing amounts of money to women who were less privileged and more vulnerable.’ (Equal, 2019. P.213-214)

So what can we learn from Carrie’s battle and the BBC’s response that will make you a better employer? Below we share some thoughts directly from Carrie herself, and from her book which should sit, overflowing as it is with tenacity and drive for better workplaces, on each of your shelves at work: Equal: A Story of Women, Men & Money.

Recognising pay inequality before it emerges

You might have heard the incredible example of Salesforce tackling equal pay, Salesforce has broached and closed emerging equal pay issues repeatedly in their company, investing over $10.3million in doing so. They have been working to build a workplace ecosystem which trains out equal pay issues “it’s not enough to address pay during compensation planning. We’re looking at every aspect of the employee journey to help level the playing field, starting with the recruiting process doing… once an employee joins, we’re working to institute a standardized process for setting salaries from day one.”

This is an ideal example of how an employer can engage positively with the equal pay battle, but it is unfortunately, very rare.

In the BBC’s case, there was time to prepare for this revelation, as Carrie shares in our interview, this was the first crux moment for her:

“The first key moment (where positive action could have been taken)  was right at the beginning when the pay figures were published and when scores of senior BBC women wrote an open letter to the Director-General protesting that it was time for action. I think that was a moment for management to stop, listen, engage and think.” notes Carrie.

The Director General, Tony Hall, instead took a defensive stance. In Equal Carrie notes “the BBC was now facing a crisis… it might have prepared for enforced transparency by getting its house in order. Instead… the Director-General claimed that our house was already in order” (Equal, 2019. P. 21)

Instead of seeing revelations about pay within their workplaces as a learning opportunity, the BBC claimed there was no problem. This had an overwhelmingly negative impact on their internal reputation, points out Carrie:

“It is always hard for individual employees to raise equal pay questions and when they do so, their concerns should be accorded the respect of an open-minded hearing. By contrast, an intimidatory, complacent or defensive management will haemorrhage the confidence of its workforce. At the BBC it made women angry.”

Where Salesforce tackled equal pay as a point of pride for the company and found that engagement with this theme and their subsequent representational gains more than justified the investment, the BBC lost this opportunity notes Carrie, in our interview:

My impression is that honestly confronting equal pay issues does build trust and commitment.” concludes Carrie “It is also a sign of a confident responsive leadership.”

What would happen in your company if you suddenly had to reveal salaries publicly? It’s a sign of the times that this question, and its answer is both essential and revealing.

Handling individual equal pay claims with care

If you’re an employer on any scale, you’ve probably had to have an equal pay chat with an employee. The choice to take on an equal pay case is incredibly brave and shows faith that these issues can be resolved. Carrie shares the importance of creating a mutually open space around equal pay discussions:

“In my own case, the second key moment came in a discussion with my line manager three months after disclosure of the pay disparities.” notes Carrie. “This was already a very slow response, but should have been the moment to solve the problem. Instead management misunderstood my motives and treated my equal pay complaint as a transaction to be resolved by the offer of a pay rise (but not parity) rather than a public interest challenge regarding the rigour of the BBC pay structure.”

At Gapsquare we use numbers to look at pay and equality, but we do not underestimate the emotional associations with this experience. Pay, at the end of the day, is an exchange of trust.

“I think it would have been better if my line manager had been honest about his difficulties in making the pay structure robust via an impartial assessment of the relative value of roles and individuals…The conversation was an insult to my intelligence as well as to my professional ethics.”

Recognising an employee coming to you with a claim like this as a chance to enhance employer/employee relations is definitely a crucial start. Seeing your employees as the enemy in this discussion, and not embracing an opportunity to build a fairer pay structure could define your identity as an employer. With employers like Salesforce out there, there’s no time for deliberation on this process.

Developing pay practices & grievance procedures that make sense to everyone

Carrie Gracie on the final straw in her equal pay claim process with the BBC:

 “The third key moment was the hearing of my formal grievance…. It was supposed to be a hearing of my grievance and yet the record did not properly represent my voice. This was particularly dismaying in the context of a dispute between the national broadcaster (for whom trust is a core value) and one of its most senior journalists (for whom accurate note taking was a professional requirement). The grievance experience destroyed my faith that my employer’s internal complaints process would be conducted in a fair and impartial manner.”

In reward, compensation and HR spaces, it is common knowledge that structured and defined pay systems and processes are essential to keeping pay equality in sight. Not developing clear structures around pay and complaints that are accessible and easy to understand is asking for increased costs in your workplace.

Building clear pay structures is an activity that may take time and engagement from your entire employee base, not to mention your leadership team , but it is worth it. There are a lot of lessons to learn from Carrie’s experience, and the impact of the BBC’s lack of clarity around their pay structure is crucial one:

“The intention may have been to simplify the pay structure, but I was not alone in finding the proposed changes fiendishly hard to understand.” (Equal, 2019. P.186).

Be clear in your communications with employees in general, be clear, honest and respectful with employees making claims. There are ample opportunities here, now is the time to make the most of them.

“An open-minded response should feed into business decisions and make these workplaces more resilient to a turbulent world.” (Equal, 2019. P.192)

Having taken the time to list the key pivot points in her relationship with the BBC, Carrie also shares a vision of a better future.

“In the end, a lot comes down to signals from the top. If CEOs take a keen interest in putting in place unconscious bias training, transparent performance benchmarks, women on promotion shortlists, BAME pay gap reporting, mentoring programmes and software that flags up pay anomalies, that will all filter down the management chain” (Equal, 2019. P.190)