"Imagine knowing the salary of every person you work with--but wait a second, they know your salary too! Now is that the ideal work environment or is it a recipe for The Hunger Games?"

With that cheeky introduction by host Carlos Watson, the PBS debate show Point Taken last night dove headlong into the fractious debate of salary transparency that has been gaining steam of late, especially as a way to bridge widening wage gaps based on gender, race, and social class. Watch: Point Taken: Should Salaries Be Transparent?

Arguing against transparency--particularly when enforced by the government--was libertarian activist Patrice Lee and Matt Welch of Reason magazine.

Making the case that greater openness is good for both company culture and society at large was Ijeoma Oluo, a Seattle-based writer, and Dan Price, CEO of  Gravity Payments.

"The status quo really isn't working," said Price, quoting a Gallup poll showing that 70% of American workers are disengaged from their jobs. "And the only way to get workers back engaged is to re-earn their trust. And my dad told me when I was a kid, if you want people to trust you, be transparent with them. Tell them the truth."

Lee challenged the conventional wisdom that a large gender wage gap even exists, citing statistics showing that women may earn four to seven cents less than men in the same job but nowhere near the oft-cited 77 cents to the dollar. "But we really need to make sure we're not talking about mandates from the government," she said. "We do not need Uncle Sam stepping into my business with my employer."

"I do believe there is a wage gap. Multiple studies have shown that there are," countered Oluo. "The only way that we can get to an effective solution to this problem that affects women, minorities, and the disabled is by being upfront with what people are being paid per position."

Welch said that, as an employee of the Reason Foundation, his salary is public but he wishes it wasn't. "As  human beings, it's OK to want a private sphere," he said.

Lee agreed. "Your salary is personal, as personal as your weight, and as personal as some of the things that we like to hold dear." She continued: "And to share that information, especially if your company or your boss shares it without your knowledge, that's pretty hurtful."

Studies about the relative merits of transparency versus secrecy show mixed results. Workers at companies with higher levels of openness have higher rates of job satisfaction and are less likely to quit; more women also apply to such firms because they feel less pressure to negotiate.

On the other hand, perhaps not surprisingly, workers with lower compensation are more likely to behave in negative ways when made aware of salary discrepancies.

Employers also find that pay transparency can remove an important bargaining tool when they want to offer good candidates higher wages than others employees in the same jobs.

Though the panelists remained far apart for most of the 30-minute program, there were brief moments of agreement.

Price, who gained fame over the past year by creating a $70,000 minimum wage at Gravity Payments, said his company has achieved equal pay for men and women partly by encouraging conversations with employees about gender bias.

Welch applauded his wage experiments because they are being done voluntarily rather than by government mandate. "I would love it if your ideas won in the marketplace, and they should," he said, "and if they're any good, I think they will."

Who won the debate?  Before it started, a poll was taken of the audience at WGBH studios in Boston: 65% said they were in favor of salary transparency while 35% were against. When it was over, the yes votes ballooned to 70% for and the no votes dropped to 30%.

The poll, however, did not ask audience members to reveal their own salaries. Had that been a requirement, there is no telling how far those pro-transparency numbers would have dropped.

Published on: May 4, 2016