Let’s begin with a basic premise: I do not work for Buffer, and as such really have no say in how they conduct their business. “Radical transparency” or whatever additional adjective you want to attach to it aside, my thoughts are not the words of somebody expects to be taken seriously on this matter – I have a blog, not a soap box. Also in the interest of disclosure, one of their employees is a former coworker of mine 1. But this may be a word of caution to anyone who goes to work there while this is in place.

In a paragraph of their Transparent Salaries document, is this:

*Family:* For every person that depends on your income (kids, husbands, wives, significant others) we add an extra $3,000 per year in salary.

By itself, it seems fairly innocuous. You have more people to support with your money, so you should be paid more. But that’s actually where I believe the logic is flawed. And it goes back to how I think of the employee / employer relationship.

You are compensated, whether by a formula or made up on the spot, for the work that you do that contributes to the company’s revenue. Either directly (say, sales or production) or indirectly (in a support role for those that contribute more directly). In traditional companies, your contribution is often estimated – unless you have a more direct impact on revenue, you aren’t likely to be paid solely on your contribution towards it, such as a commission.

In Buffer’s formula, a lot of this is accounted for, such as your role at the company, level of experience and tenure. They also pay cost of living adjustments based on work location (paid more if you live in more expensive areas of the country). These line up about the same as every other company’s formula, whether it is written down somewhere or not. They are different in that they share theirs. More on that later.

Why the family component of compensation is flawed

There are a few points to make with this.

  1. There is not a direct contribution towards the revenue of the company to justify paying more to employees supporting a family. You could perhaps argue that those with families are likely to have a longer tenure, but that’s already accounted for. This fact alone is reason to not make it part of any compensation calculation.
  2. Being married is a choice (short of pre-arranged marriages by cultural custom, but we’ll set those aside), but it’s frankly none of the company’s business. Same goes for whether they can count a “significant other”.
  3. Having children is only a choice for a subset of the overall population. Not every human body possesses the necessary biological means to procreate, and even those that do are not always successful. Adoption is also a complex topic and, again, is none of the company’s business 2.
  4. Those that cannot have children or have a personal objection against marriage are discriminated against – there is no way around this. They are at a financial disadvantage when compared to their married and child-rearing coworkers.

Transparency does not mean it is right

I have a strong personal belief against the disclosure of salary information, particularly as a topic of casual conversation. That said, I believe in fair compensation, and even think that it should be audited from time to time by professionals to identify areas where compensation is not equitable with the work performed. Buffer can certainly enforce this, as it is shared internally as well as publicly.

Discrimination (and yes, that is exactly the word for this) against employees without families is wrong. Discrimination against those with families is also wrong. Codifying it in a public document is downright negligent.

I also believe that having this policy, if unchallenged, may serve a nefarious end. It says that, “We only want employees who fit our view of what the ideal nuclear family represents. We reward those that have many children. Those that do not objectively are less-valued employees.”

That goes against a lot of the ethos projected by Buffer, particularly in the areas of workplace diversity. I hope they reconsider this policy and make financial amends with employees hurt by it.

  1. I would habitually add “friend” in that list, but I totally understand if this strains that quite a bit. 

  2. If you have never talked to anyone who has been through this, please take a moment and seek one out. You are missing a critical understanding of the way the world works.