There’s a lot that we can learn from professional football when it comes to pay transparency. Footballers expect to have their salaries published online—and by the press—for their teammates and everyone else to see. Argentine professional footballer Lionel Messi earns a salary of over £500k a week; a figure considerably higher than any of his teammates.
How can Messi justify such high pay?
Clear performance indicators
Professional football has clear performance indicators; the skill of each player is plain for all to see. There’s clear-cut data around goals, assists, passes, completion rates and tackles.
If we look at the 2018/19 season, Messi scored 51 goals in 49 matches—considerably more than any of his teammates. He had 19 assists—twice as many as any of his teammates. Messi’s teammates can clearly see the contribution that he makes to the team. They all reap the benefits and together they’ve won numerous titles and cups.
Messi’s teammates understand that if he wasn’t compensated in this way, he may leave and join another team, jeopardising all of their future success.
The dangers of poorly managed disclosure
But the office environment is, to pardon the pun, a completely different ballgame. Contributions and performance aren’t easy to measure and are often subjective. Two managers can—and often do—have very different views on the performance of the same employee.
A recent study published in Harvard Business Review asked 700 Silicon Valley engineers to rate their performance relative to their peers. An astonishing 92% thought they were in the upper quartile and 40% thought that they were in the top 5%. That’s 280 people who assumed they ranked in the top 35.
So when individual performance isn’t easy to measure, publishing salaries is not the answer. In fact, it can do more harm than good.
Pay transparency off the pitch
Professional football teaches us that if we want to disclose our salaries or be completely transparent, we also need clear indicators. One meeting a year with our managers is not enough. We need explicit barometers around the skills and capabilities required for each role and what’s expected of people, so employees are not promoted because of who we subjectively feel is the best fit for the team.
Want to learn more? Read next: Can Pay Transparency Lead to Pay Equity?