Fair and Unfair: The Dirty Secrets of Compensation, and How Fixer is Taking Them On

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By Tracy Cupper, VP of People

A broken compensation system only stays broken because companies aren’t doing enough to fix it. At Fixer, it’s in our name -- so we’re fixing it from the ground up. 

We’ve worked really hard to make our compensation policies and practices fair, data-driven, and objective -- it’s part of the work we’re doing to create a fairer, more equitable workplace that reflects the values we’ve strived to embody as a business. We do that because too often in our field, there’s nothing equitable or fair about compensation.

For us, that means that we set our compensation using software that benchmarks our pay grades against other companies doing work like ours in our geographical area that are around the same size as we are. We tell our Fixer and our Fixer trainee candidates what their pay will be up front, even before their interview, because it helps them be empowered to make the decisions that are best for themselves and their families, including the time that would need to be invested in interviewing. 

What’s the conversation around compensation?

Compensation conversations are taboo in our culture -- we don’t talk about how much we make and the fact that we’re all here to make money to pay our bills. I’m sure all of us have daydreamed about what we would be doing instead if we were independently wealthy, but we come to work every day because we are not, and we have rent, mortgages, electric bills, and car maintenance to pay for, after all. So here we are, chugging coffee and making it through the days until the weekend.

Perhaps the biggest reason that we shy away from talking about compensation is the fact that compensation is highly variable. Some positions earn way more than others, and there’s an uncomfortable weight there that seems to signify that the person that holds one position is worth more than the person holding the other. It’s not true! We are all humans, intrinsically worthy of being just because of who we are, not because of what we do. 


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Compensation bias

The real dirty secret of compensation isn’t position to position, company to company, or location to location compensation differentials. It’s the bias that is present in compensation. 

Gender, racial, and other biases mean that different people are getting paid different pay rates for doing the SAME work for the SAME company in the SAME location. So as a culture, we’ve made talking about pay off-limits, to protect those that are getting paid more, and to prevent those who are making less from finding out and using it as leverage against the company. Our industry is not exempt from these practices: There’s evidence to suggest ongoing racial disparity in pay in the building trades -- in New York City, black unionized workers earn on average $7.69 less per hour than their white counterparts. An African American worker in blue-collar construction workers earns 74 cents, on average, for every dollar earned by a comparable white (non-Latino) construction worker in states without prevailing wage laws and 88 cents, on average, in states with prevailing wage laws. The Census Bureau found that, in 2017, full-time, year-round working women earned 80% of what their male counterparts earned.

The biases in compensation are hardly an untracked phenomenon, despite their “dirty secret” status. We have all this research showing us that compensation can be wielded as a weapon against some groups of people while being used to generously reward other groups of people. So how do we take that information and do something about it?

Some governments and their agencies in the U.S. have taken a stab at solving this with various laws and initiatives. Employers with more than 100 workers must submit pay data broken down by race and gender to the EEOC. Fixer’s home state, Illinois, has a new law that went into effect on September 29, 2019, that bars employers from asking applicants’ compensation history during job screenings, aiming to “break a cycle of wage disparity in which predominantly female and/or minority workers have received lower pay for performing similar or the same work as a male and/or non-minority colleague.”

Legislation and advocacy are a good start, but real change is only going to happen if companies take the compensation biases on themselves and remove them from their compensation policies and processes. 

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Fixer is changing the narrative

From our earliest days at Fixer, long before the state of Illinois had an opinion, we have made it a point to not ask for compensation history in our hiring process, because we knew that would just further other companies’ biases. We created clear compensation policies and practices and made the process more transparent from the beginning of our hiring process, so that our candidates and employees could see how we calculated their pay and know what to expect when they signed on for the company. 

Part of our commitment to running our company a little differently is to make sure that we’re taking on some of the dirty secrets that have made people feel “less than” in this industry and changing the narrative. We want our employees to know that we value them as people, especially in the way we compensate them fairly and objectively, in addition our communication about compensation within the company writ large -- because it helps to level the playing field AND make it an environment where we welcome everyone equally to the table. 

Hopefully our candidates can see the promise in that and you can, too.