The case for workplace transparency

I’m in the market for a new job. I’m not sure if you’ve ever noticed, but there really isn’t that much information out there to help me narrow my search.

Employers generally don’t advertise what the salary is, and if you phone them they’re often coy. So I’m going to have to wait until I get to the job interview. If they don’t tell me upfront in the interview, I can ask, but I then run the risk of being perceived as having the wrong attitude. As a woman of child-bearing age, I’m certainly not game enough to ask about family friendly policies. Would the employer think I was about to run off and have babies? And I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable asking about drug tests; not because I’ve been taking any drugs lately, but because I’d be interested to know whether or not they’re going to jab a needle in me.

I recently attended a talk about workplace transparency by Professor Cynthia Estlund from the New York University law school. She thinks that businesses should have to publicly publish information about (among other things) workplace policies, salaries they offer, the cultural and gender make-up of their staff and the kinds of hours employees are expected to work.

It was a concept entirely new to me, and yet, it shouldn’t be. Food companies have to label their packages so we know what ingredients and preservatives their goods contain. Board members, journalists and government officials have to disclose certain relationships and business interests. Basically, mandatory disclosure keeps the market honest.

Unlike buying, say, a muesli bar, I’m going to have to wait to find out the answers to all of my burning questions until I’ve accepted the job – that is, after I’ve already bought the muesli bar and started munching on it. In the case of flexible work options, it might be weeks or months into my employment, and by that stage I’d have turned down other job opportunities and stopped sending out applications.

Job applicants are asked to commit to spending 38 hours a week to work for a business that they know nothing about. Sure, they can Google the business and check out all the positive information that the marketing team is keen to share with the world. But no company website is going to tell me about a high turnover of staff, whether or not I would be the only woman in the entire business, or a culture of excessive overtime.

In Australia there is a lot of information already available to the public. As a rule, all enterprise bargaining agreements are published for the world to see. As long as a job applicant can figure out which agreement would cover the workplace for the job they’re applying for, they already have a large amount of the information they might need. But figuring this out isn’t always easy. And lots of businesses don’t have collective agreements.

Businesses have been very reluctant to make public much of the information they make available to their staff. One reason is that knowledge empowers people. Professor Estlund gave the example of Westinghouse, who explained that they couldn’t possibly make public the salaries they were paying their engineers because there was a shortage of engineers and other companies would lure their staff away with more money. How terrible! To pay these engineers what the market says they’re worth!

Estlund made it clear that she doesn’t want to make more work for employers. And she’s talking about the American labour market, with far fewer minimum standards and only 8% of workplaces unionised. She’s talking about information that employers already have, that they either share with existing employees or provide for other regulatory purposes. As someone who is trawling through job ads, sending letters, making phone calls, attending interviews, I’m thinking that all of these employer’s I’m hassling would spend far less time and money on recruitment and reduce the risk of hiring the wrong person for the job, simply by being upfront about their workplace.

The side effect of publishing all of this kind of information is that employees and potential employees know the lay of the land. Under the last Liberal governments system of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs), the content of individual agreements was confidential. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we saw a significant reduction in wages and conditions for employees employed under AWAs. Where information is public, employees have a better understanding of how their conditions compare with others and where they can go for conditions that better suit them. Public disclosure of the good and the bad might just encourage employers to cut down on the bad. Not all employers want to be the best, but none want to be known as the worst. That’s just bad PR. Surely that’s reason enough to consider the idea.

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  1. Along these lines, one of the slogans of the Trotskyist left in the thirties was for employers to open their books. The idea being that, in the midst of layoffs and cutbacks, transparency would encourage discussions about precisely how and where companies were making money, and would provoke workers to draw radical conclusions. Not surprisingly, employers then and employers now were never very keen on the notion.

  2. Well it probably didn’t help that it was the Trotskyites who were suggesting such a thing. Even just a whiff of the left-wing is often enough to send business running! While we’re less frightened of the left here in Australia, this is evidenced by the recent discussion in the States of universal health care as equating to socialism (and therefore equating to the anti-democratic anti-capitalist infringement of individual rights).

    The Trotskyites made a valid point though – other than stirring up all of those radical conclusions of course and causing a riot, the proposal serves to suggest that the secrecy around company finances is less about commercial-in-confidence and more about a company having the freedom to make decisions about it’s employees that are not in the interest of those employees or the wider community.

  3. This is the best idea I’ve read in at least a month. YES. Make the information available, so we know what we’re signing our lives away for. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have taken my job if I knew what I was in for, job crisis or not.

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