Early in her career, Cindy Robbins didn't question her salary. "I didn't feel like I had the permission to say anything," she says. "Every merit increase, or even any offer I got, I would just be like, 'Thank you,' because I thought that's what I was supposed to do." She worried that raising any concerns would mark her as a "difficult" employee.

In 2015, as the chief people officer at San Francisco-based enterprise software giant Salesforce, Robbins was finally in a position to speak up--this time on behalf of women who might hesitate to advocate for themselves, as she once did. "If I could use that power and influence in that C-suite job, that was something I wanted to do," she says.

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First, she needed to get buy-in from the top. In March, she and fellow Salesforce executive Leyla Seka pitched the idea of a pay audit to the company's CEO, Marc Benioff. Before they could help women bump up their salaries comparable to men's, they figured it would help to know how skewed salaries were to begin with. Benioff agreed to the audit, and Salesforce released the results of its first internal salary assessment that following March. It found that about 6 percent of the company's then 17,000 employees--both women and men--weren't being paid enough based on factors like job level and location. The company spent $3 million on raises to correct the disparities.

The audit has been repeated annually ever since. By the time Robbins left the company in May of this year to advise other companies on gender equality, Salesforce had spent a total of $10.3 million on salary adjustments. Here are the five steps Robbins recommends to assess--and, if necessary, close--the gender pay gap at your company.

1. Start at the top. 

Big changes--like recalibrating the pay structure of thousands of employees--have to come from the CEO, says Robbins. "They have to articulate and be overt about how they define their corporate values, and make sure it's not just marketing speak. They actually [need to] walk the walk." 

2. Gather data.

"The easy part was asking Marc," Robbins acknowledges. Then came the audit itself. They started by grouping employees with similar jobs and comparing their salaries. After the first year, they included bonuses in the evaluation, and for employees in the U.S., they further measured pay differences based on race and ethnicity, as well as gender. "There's no excuse for any company to say, 'Well, I can't do this, because I don't have the data behind it.' Every company houses the data," Robbins says.

3. Nix hiring bias.

Hiring bias is often at the root of pay inequality. Robbins stresses that Salesforce recruiters are no longer permitted to ask candidates what their current job pays. If an employee's previous compensation wasn't commensurate with their worth, and you base your offer on that figure, "you're just continuing to bring the gap in," she points out. Instead, ask what compensation the candidate expects in their new role. 

Also, make sure new hires aren't being paid at different rates than current employees in similar positions. Salesforce has run into this problem when it acquired other companies, Robbins notes. Incorporating another business's workforce into your own could mean inheriting unequal pay practices.

4. Systematize raises and promotions.

Recognizing and rewarding employees should be consistent and equitable. To achieve this, specify targets employees can meet to merit a raise or promotion, and document your policies. 

Employees are always observing their colleagues' promotions and raises, and "if they don't feel it's done in an equitable way, they start to lose trust," Robbins says. "And once you lose trust with your employees, you have a much bigger problem on your hands." 

5. Stay the course.

When she and Seka proposed the pay audit, Robbins says, they had two requirements: First, an assessment would need to happen every year. Robbins contends that no company has flawless systems, and numerous factors can affect employee compensation from year to year.

Second, Robbins wanted to proceed no matter the results. "If we do the assessment and we get a big, big dollar sign, we can't ... pretend we didn't see it," says Robbins. Company leaders often worry about the cost of salary adjustments and the time it takes to reach pay parity. Her advice: "Look, you might not be able to fix it right away. But if you're transparent with your employees on the steps that you're going to take ... to fix it, I think that's the important message."

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