David Buckmaster is the author of Fair Pay: How to Get a Raise, Close the Wage Gap, and Build Stronger Businesses, published by HarperCollins in 2021. His book proposal was shortlisted by the Financial Times and McKinsey for 2020’s Bracken Bower Prize. He has been featured in Fast Company, MarketWatch, and The Wall Street Journal. Aside from his career as an author, he is Director of compensation at Nike. He joined us to discuss how we can all contribute to a better and fairer workplace, as well as sharing secrets from his writing practice.
Why did you decide to write Fair Pay?
I was at a personal low when I started writing what would become this book. My family and I had relocated for a job change, and we didn’t adapt well to the location. The stress was taking a toll on me. Eventually, one of the executives realized I used to write book reviews and essays for a niche magazine we both knew, and even once for McSweeneys. He gave me a look as if to say, “what the hell are you doing with your life?” Clearly, he saw a link between my personal deterioration and my pausing a writing hobby that mattered to me.
So I started writing again. I followed the standard advice that you should write what you know, and what I know is pay. I found the Bracken Bower Prize put on by The Financial Times and McKinsey and Company for emerging business writers under 35. I was shortlisted for the prize in 2018, and that was the validation I needed to take a real run at writing a book.
What’s the biggest misconception most people have about how compensation works in America today?
I’d say two things: that the way pay works at most companies is irredeemably unfair, in the sense that people are out to get you, and that pay rates are set in a totally free and self-correcting market. Ultimately, pay systems are designed by people, and we can choose to design them in different ways that work better for everyone.
Corporate pay systems have a lot more rigor than people assume, but they are mostly tucked away in a black-box. Structural choices we’ve made over the years get in the way of allowing people to know and own the price of their labor. Unless you’re in my seat, with access to good information about pay, it’s almost impossible to know if your pay is market relevant or comparatively appropriate to your peers. That means it’s hard to hold companies accountable for dynamic or consistent pay growth, and therefore too many companies maintain their pay systems not by intention, but inertia.
If we got serious about redesigning pay in ways that made companies compete for employees as aggressively as they compete for customers, particularly at the low end of the wage scale, my argument is that most of us would make more money, our experience of work would be healthier, we’d have a more stable society, and our businesses would end up stronger in the long run.
Do you think salaries and compensation should be totally transparent, or are there reasons companies or workers might want privacy around this?
The trend is towards more transparency, and that’s a good thing. I write about legislated executive pay transparency, how that has been an enabler of unfettered pay growth for the bosses, and what we can learn from this model. We’ll no doubt see movement toward transparent processes and pay ranges, which is a great start. But I don’t think many companies will go fully transparent where everyone knows everyone’s pay at all times.
Pay transparency is a spectrum. Companies assume they’ll have to make a tradeoff between the goodwill generated through their openness, and their perceived ability to differentiate pay for performance. If a manager decides to reward their superstar with a big pay increase, they will have to justify the news when it inevitably goes public. Broadly, I think many organizations hesitate on transparency because they aren’t confident in their ability to identify and calibrate top performers or communicate the distinctions in people’s contributions.
The data suggests not everyone wants full transparency because they don’t want to have to justify their number compared to their peers. So, when companies go fully transparent, it’s often paired with a more formulaic approach to pay that applies the same rules to everyone. Most companies assume their top performers will see that as limiting and opt out.
What’s your take on companies that allow employees to work remotely, but cut salaries when they do so?
This is a no-win situation for compensation designers. The argument against cutting pay is that if you can add the same value from Seattle as you can in San Antonio, then your market value is the same regardless of your laptop’s location. It makes intuitive sense, though I’m always curious if people realize how different pay is across their company’s global offices. Does their argument stop at national borders?
The truth is, there’s nothing new here for my field. In my experience, compensation teams aren’t using remote work as an opportunity to save money. Instead, the old programs are simply more visible now. Geographic pay differentials have been the standard forever, and the model hasn’t fundamentally shifted. Of course, that doesn’t mean it makes people happy or that it’s the right call for all companies in the future, especially if the company is going fully remote. In the executive ranks, you don’t see these geographic differentials because executives see themselves as national talent. We’ll see this idea filter down a few more rungs, but we’re a long way from that being the national standard for all jobs.
Think of corporate pay decisions as anger triage. If you work in a company who sees a future where most people work in offices (which is looking like the stance of most companies), then their compensation plans must control for the masses of employees that have not been granted permission to work remotely. If most of the company is in San Francisco and paid accordingly, they will get upset if their remote peers are netting so much more while they weren’t given the same opportunity.
Conversely, if your starting point is Nashville and pay is based on national wages, then you will struggle to recruit people from cities like San Francisco, and it may not be affordable to increase everyone to San Francisco rates. In large companies, every permutation of people movement is happening at once, so you have to design for administrative clarity and consistent application, and there’s no way to make everyone happy.
Pay is the antigravity. The expectation is that what goes up can only continue to go up. A lot of companies who have made announcements about pay cuts, to their credit, have been very transparent about their approach. My take is that if the company has been clear and consistent, and you’ve chosen to make a lifestyle choice by going remote, you have to own the outcome of that decision, good or bad. Though I wouldn’t recommend companies lower pay for existing employees except in rare cases, it absolutely can be part of maintaining a fair and equitable pay program.
What achievement are you most proud of?
My daughter. We had her young, in our early twenties, and she’s nearly thirteen now. I am so optimistic about her generation. I grew up in north Tampa when it was just farmland and professional wrestlers, which was not a fantastic combination for developing thoughtful young people. I’m thankful she’s had the opportunity to live in different places and because of that she’s a far more empathetic person than I was at her age.
Professionally, there were two blurbs for this book that floored me. The first is Zeynep Ton at MIT. She wrote a book called The Good Jobs Strategy, without which my book would not exist because her work has so influenced my worldview. The second is Tim Wu, who now serves as Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy in the Biden administration. I admire his writing—how he can make technical and dry material sound engaging—which was important to me for writing a book about corporate pay practices.
Writing a book is hard, and the routine is not glamorous. You must love writing for writing’s sake, you must feel like you have something unique to say, and you must believe the book buried inside you has to exist no matter if or how well it sells.
What is your writing process like?
This is my first major writing project, so I had to develop a process. I started with a big board on my basement wall with post-it notes all over it for planning the book structure. I settled into using Instapaper and Excel for organizing everything. Excel is the comfort blanket of people in my profession.
The only part of my day that was consistently open to write was early, so I wrote from 5:00 to 7:30 am four days a week, and then until lunch most Saturdays. At first, I wrote every day, per the classic advice from Stephen King in his book, On Writing, but I found I needed scheduled breathers.
My wife read through each chapter before I submitted it to my official editor at HarperCollins. She is extraordinarily smart and prevented some bad arguments from submission, and we found out she has a weird love for finding typos and grammar errors.
One thing that I found important was being mindful of what books I read in the evening before bed, as that style would inevitably show up in the next morning’s writing. I am still learning what my writing voice sounds like, and so there were some things I couldn’t read at all because I knew I didn’t want to write like that person. If I hated what I wrote that day, my style-reset button was usually essays by Alexandra Petri, Bossypants by Tina Fey, or anything by Michael Lewis. If I had to choose my ideal writer’s voice, it would be a blend of those people. Complex topics, easily understood, and wherever possible, funny.
How did you get your agent, and what tips do you have for people who want to write a nonfiction book?
As part of the Bracken Bower prize, short-listed writers were invited to a Q&A session with people in the publishing industry. That was a helpful reality check.
I spent the following week looking for agent names in the acknowledgements of my favorite books. I sent unsolicited emails and ended up signing with Laurie Abkemeier at DeFiore and Co in New York. She was the ideal fit because she also represents Cal Newport, whose writing career has been a major influence on me.
Tactically, my advice is to study the process. Nonfiction writers should not be writing a full book prior to finding an agent. A great idea, along with chapter summaries and the first chapter are what you will need to get that initial feedback. You will change this content a hundred times, so it’s best not to be too attached.
More importantly, I’d say that if you don’t love the process of writing, don’t write a book. That sounds simple, but the world really doesn’t need more rehashed business books that only exist as personal brand-builders. Writing a book is hard, and the routine is not glamorous. You must love writing for writing’s sake, you must feel like you have something unique to say, and you must believe the book buried inside you has to exist no matter if or how well it sells.
That said, writing isn’t a magical superpower. I love the Kurt Vonnegut quote that writing “allows mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence.” You have to keep at it, and that comes from a place of loving writing.
What’s next for David Buckmaster?
The day job of working on corporate compensation design continues, and I clearly enjoy what I do. I think the world of pay is headed for foundational change, and I’m looking forward to that work. FAIR PAY has already led to some fantastic conversations with people in my field, and I’m excited to see where that leads.
I’d like to do a second book on an adjacent topic, and I’m gathering notes now while taking the time to see how readers respond to FAIR PAY and how that should influence my future writing.
Where can readers find your work?
The best place is my website, davidbuckmasterbooks.com. That’s where I keep the podcasts I’ve done, articles, and reviews. On social media, Instagram and LinkedIn are the two I keep up with most. My daughter won’t let me on TikTok.