Even in the most open work environment, there's one thing most employers prefer to keep under wraps: salaries.
With the exception of salaries for government positions (which, by law, are made public in Canada) or a unionized position (in which pay ranges are published), pay is generally negotiated privately between an employer and employee, and considered inappropriate chat for the water cooler. Or Facebook, for that matter.
But a new breed of websites is dragging salaries out from the shadows and putting them front and centre. On sites such as Glassdoor.com, Payscale.com and Salaryscout.com, employees across North America are posting how much they get paid and finding out what others in their field, or even their company, are making.
On Glassdoor, visitors can post salaries as well as brief reviews of their workplace, with comments like "a great working environment" or "horrible management, no room for advancement." There are even approval ratings of CEOs. Salaryscout claims you can "get accurate salary data matched to your job title, location, experience and more." The catch? All these sites depend on anonymous, voluntary reporting.
And that's why experts see reason to be concerned. These sites can "put the whole employer/employee relationship at risk," says Antoinette Blunt, chair of the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario and president of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.-based Ironside Consulting Services, which specializes in human resources, labour relations and management services.
The first problem? Anonymity.
"The validity of the information on these websites is suspect," said Ms. Blunt. "A salary could be over- or understated, and it may give a false impression of a company." Just as someone might spitefully trash a competitor's restaurant in an online review, an angry ex-employee could post false information about a company.
In addition, even if salary figures are accurate, Ms. Blunt points out that salary alone does not reflect the entirety of what compensation means at a company.
"Salary is one piece of information, but there are other things that are non-monetary," said Ms. Blunt. "Maybe there was a give and take on benefits with respect to wages. Or maybe an employee said, 'I want to spend 50 per cent of my work time out of my home and if you allow me to have that flexibility I will ensure on a weekly basis I produce the following for you,' and that may change what the salary is."
As well, Ms. Blunt has concerns about privacy issues. In a time where people are sharing almost everything about their lives on Facebook and Twitter, they may not be aware of the risks they take by posting company information.
"If I decide to put what I am paid on a website like this, I am forfeiting my right to privacy with respect to my own information, and there's nothing legally wrong with that," said Ms. Blunt. "But if I as an employee share what my boss is making or what my colleague is making, I've crossed the line. And it could put my job at risk."
Klick Communications, a Toronto-based marketing and digital solutions company, is one of the thousands of firms listed on Glassdoor, with two anonymous salary postings. Klick founder Lee Segal says he is realistic about the possibility of keeping salaries under wraps.
"Should salaries be kept private? Yes. But do I believe that's actually what happens? No," said Mr. Segal.
He sees value in websites that shed light on employers, but he has problems with the lack of context.
"The Internet is creating more transparency and accountability, and in general that's a good thing. If you run a business that you're proud of, then that transparency is going to end up working for you," he said.
"But I'm not sure the salary component in and of itself is constructive without the broader context of the other things people value in an employer - community involvement, or the quality of its leadership, or the learning opportunities or whatever it is that's important to an employee."
"I think if these sites had a little more structure around those specific areas as opposed to just salaries and general feedback, it would be able to really get you a better sense of the pulse of that organization."
But what happens when an employee complains they aren't making the salary they saw posted? And how can you prevent false or confidential info from ending up online? Ms. Blunt suggests companies take steps immediately.
"Firstly, I advise my clients to have a very clear, concise, comprehensive policy with respect to intellectual property, confidentiality and the sharing of information," said Ms. Blunt.
As well, she advises employers to make a comprehensive compensation framework available to all employees and potential employees. It should explain salary ranges and factors that might come into play when salary is considered.
"What kind of things would put you in a higher bracket? Do you consider performance? Do you consider length of staying with the company?" Ms. Blunt said.
This framework can help if employees see numbers on a salary website that are higher than their own.
Mr. Segal of Klick doesn't feel a compensation framework works for a company like his, where jobs titles are often fluid and employees are encouraged to be "agile," flowing from one position to another. His response to someone who might complain about discrepancies on salary websites would be to direct them to more constructive sources.
"More valuable than looking at Glassdoor and collecting a single data point like somebody's compensation would be to go to resources like LinkedIn," he said. "Connect with other people who have worked in those industries or still do, and get that information firsthand."
Ms. Blunt sees some value in salary information - for example, to help encourage young people to go into the skilled trades. But she hopes individual salaries will remain private in the future.
"As for the idea of a person having a dollar sign on their forehead?" she said. "I hope it never comes to that."