Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Openness: CMG's unsecret sauce

The CMG Wake last Friday was a lot of fun. Estimates have placed attendance at around the 700 mark, which made the pub extremely crowded and rather noisy.

Whilst queuing at the bar I got talking to someone who left the company in 1987. He put his finger on the unique thing about CMG. He now lectures in Business Studies and cites CMG to his students as an example of openness in business. In CMG everything was open: the personal files hung in open cabinets in the office. You could read anyone's file - from their job application form to their latest staff appraisal. Yes, including salary.

That's the bit which gets people. When Brian Behlendorf talked about introducing open source principles in general working practices at OOW2K6 one of the questions afterwards was whether such openness, if taken to its logical extreme, would result in everybody knowing how much everybody else earns.

Well, why not? Partly it's just embarrassment - many people would rather discuss their medical conditions or their bedroom fantasies than their pay-packet. But the main objection seems to be "I wouldn't want my colleagues to know how much I earn". The objectors are presuming that they earn more than their co-workers. I think some of those people would be very interested to discover that all their colleagues get paid more than them. And they'd want to know why.

The accepted wisdom in CMG was that open salaries promoted fairness: the management couldn't play favourites because anybody could ask them "How come Joe Soap gets paid 10K more than me?" and have to provide an answer. In practice there were probably all sorts of anomalies - especially in pay rates across different divisions - but it felt fair. I know people who work in law firms and finances houses where discussing your salary with co-workers is a disciplinary offence. Most companies aren't that fierce but very few companies are as open as CMG was.

I don't think openness was the only thing which made CMG special, but it was one of the reasons why so many people feel affection for the company, even if they did stop working for it over twenty years ago. Although I'm sure the promise of a free bar helped too.

Update: 06-MAR-2008

Currently Dilbert has an amusing take on payroll secrecy. I think this link will eventually break, so get it whilst it's hot :D

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