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How we set salaries
How our company continues striving toward a fairer, more transparent salary-setting process through advocacy, trust and mentorship.
The traditional way companies set salaries and determine raises and promotions often feels like a black box, leaving employees with little insight into why or how they were offered a certain title or pay band. Without access to insider information or insights into the decision making process, it’s difficult for the average person to understand how they ended up where they are or where they stand in relation to their peers, let alone how to progress to the next level in their career.
While the conversation and push for salary transparency has gained steam recently, roughly half of US employees report that they are either discouraged or formally prohibited from discussing wage and salary information. This remains true despite evidence that salary transparency causes significant increases in both the equity and equality of pay.
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As a group of studios committed to rooting out inequity and breaking down informal pockets of power, garden3d aimed to create a salary-setting and review process that was grounded in our collective values and vision, instead of these outdated and unfair corporate norms. It also needed to be free from reliance on formal or informal power brokers, and to eliminate opportunities for unilateral decision making by individual team members to protect against bias.
That’s how we developed the Skill Tree and the Skill Tree review process, a rubric for career growth at garden3d.
So, what is a skill tree?
While we may be the first ones to use this exact moniker, the idea of a skill tree is far from original. You might’ve heard of a career ladder, competency matrix, or growth framework at your current job. Maybe you’ve even used Progression or something similar to create a career framework yourself.
At their core, all of these things (including our Skill Tree) aim to provide a deterministic mapping from a person’s skills, contributions, and experience to a title, or, in our case, skill level.
If you’re not familiar with this concept or are just curious to see examples from other orgs, you can check out Progression’s open source library of career frameworks here.
These frameworks serve to both ensure consistency across people in the same pay or title band, and to protect against individual bias and discrimination in the hiring and salary-setting process. While they are an important first step in protecting against pay inequity, they are far from sufficient, as you’ll see when we discuss more about the evolution of our Skill Tree and review process.
Skill Tree reviews at garden3d
Here at garden3d, Skill Tree reviews are a peer-to-peer review system grounded in your demonstrated skills and driven by you and your chosen collaborators. Everyone is encouraged to complete a Skill Tree review whenever they feel like they’ve grown, which tends to be about every 9–18 months.
Contrary to most promotion or salary review processes, everything about the Skill Tree aims to put the person being reviewed in the driver seat, positioned to be their own best advocate. You get to choose when your review happens and who is involved. You can appeal your results if you don’t agree with where things landed or initiate an update in the Skill Tree matrix itself if you feel its unfair.
Everything is based on a transparent, deterministic calculation, eliminating the need for salary negotiation, which has been shown to contribute to the gender pay gap. Even new hires set their own salary using the Skill Tree!
The garden3d Skill Tree is the backbone of this process. It’s a sprawling Google Sheet consisting of two core skill tabs (Individual Contributor and Studio Impact), along with various craft-specific tabs (Engineer, Designer, Strategist, Operations, Communications, etc.). Anyone completing a review would fill out both the Individual Contributor and Studio Impact tabs, as well as the tab specific to their craft.
The matrix is setup to encompass a person’s soft and hard skills, how they impact the projects they are on, and how they push the organization itself forward, aiming to capture and quantify work that is often not recognized or undervalued in a standard job review.
How our Skill Tree evolved with the organization
The first iteration of the Skill Tree review process was quite similar to what we have today, but lacked some crucial guardrails that prevented it from being truly impactful. Critically, while the process and calculations were transparent to everyone at the company, the outcome of each individual review was not.
Especially as an organization with little installed hierarchy and without traditional job titles, this made it extremely difficult to know where you stood in relation to the people you worked with every day, and made it easy for people to create unrealistic expectations for themselves and others based on assumptions about their colleagues’ skill levels.
Career growth was also more difficult, as people were unable to identify potential mentors or gain insight into the tracks that other people across the company were taking to up-skill themselves. This left teammates without the tools to truly advocate for themselves or a clear path forward for how to progress to the next level in their career.
As a step toward more radical transparency, everyone at the company anonymously gave consent to making their skill levels (and corresponding salaries) transparent internally. At the time of this reveal, there was only one woman and no people of color who had been able to progress to the senior skill band.
This realization lead to many difficult but necessary conversations about implicit bias, soft power, inconsistencies across studios, and how, despite our best efforts, garden3d was reflecting the wider trends of unequal pay for gender and racial minorities in the tech industry.
This spurred the creation of our DEI Working Group, along with the hiring of a DEI consultant, to continue to push this work forward and to further refine the Skill Tree. Take a peep at our 2022 DEI report for more details on our approach to DEI and the progress we’ve made on this front so far.
Running a Skill Tree review
Here’s what it looks like to complete a Skill Tree review at garden3d.
1️⃣ Build your peer group
The first step in completing a Skill Tree is for the person being reviewed to choose their peer group. A valid peer group consists of two or three trusted collaborators who have direct experience with the reviewee and their work, one of whom must be senior to the person being reviewed.
We added the more senior reviewer requirement to prevent a phenomenon where more junior collaborators “don’t know what they don’t know” and might mistakenly inflate or deflate their scores because of this.
By allowing each person to choose their own reviewers, we aim to empower people who may not be as extroverted or comfortable advocating for themselves to choose a group that they feel safe discussing these things with.
2️⃣ Compile ratings and feedback independently
Once they’ve chosen a valid peer group, the reviewee and each of their chosen peers must independently fill out a Skill Tree. Referencing the Skill Tree spreadsheet, all reviewers determine the band they feel best embodies the person being reviewed, and then designate the consistency at which they feel the person is performing at that band.
All participants are encouraged to note specific examples so that they can later make a compelling case for how they landed on a certain band and consistency, as well as provide qualitative feedback and context for their ratings.
3️⃣ Share feedback together
Once everyone has had a chance to compile their ratings, reasoning, and feedback, the person being reviewed schedules some time with everyone in the peer group and anyone else they’d like to attend for what we call a finalization meeting.
During that meeting (which is recorded for transparency and accountability), everyone, starting with the person being reviewed, shares their qualitative reasoning and feedback.
4️⃣ Resolve inconsistencies and finalize ratings
Next, the reviewee leads the group in resolving any inconsistencies that exists amongst the ratings. To do this, anyone with an outlying score can either choose to default to what the rest of the group has chosen or make a case for what they think the score should be.
This is done by referencing the Skill Tree spreadsheet and providing specific examples along with an explanation of why they do or don't (yet) believe that the person being reviewed embodies that behavior.
Using consensus to come to final scores ensures that no unilateral decisions are made and helps to prevent any soft power that a single reviewer may have from affecting the final outcome while also acting as a safeguard against any individual’s biases.
Calculating your new salary
Once any discrepancies are resolved, the final results are submitted to the payroll admin and translated into a new skill band/salary. This is done by taking the band and consistency the reviewee received in each skill category, translating it into a score using the table below, and summing them all together.
Band and Consistency Points
This total is then translated into a skill level and salary using the following table and the outcome is available internally for anyone to view. Keep in mind that this number is just a base salary and doesn’t account for our profit share program, which you can see accounted for in all our open source Profit & Loss statements.
After a review is complete, if anyone feels the outcome is either biased or for some reason does not accurately reflect the person being reviewed’s skillsets and contributions, they can appeal the results by reaching back out to the peer group and articulating why they think the review was not accurate. The group can then either agree or disagree with the appeal and, if necessary, convene for another review.
How our Skill Tree continues to evolve
Sometimes, a review may surface an issue with the Skill Tree matrix or review process, which is why we have a process for how to update and improve the Skill Tree itself. There are two types of changes that can be made: ones that are safe, and ones that require discussion.
Safe Changes, like rewording a certain cell for clarity or updating some formatting for consistency, can simply be documented in the change tracker, made independently, and then broadcasted to the company. Some changes to the Skill Tree, like changes to the actual review process, require discussion and approval from the rest of the company.
We use a Change Tracker to document proposed changes, and bring them for discussion with the broader group. If a change is deemed safe through that discussion, you can go right ahead and make it as you would a Safe Change, otherwise it may be advised that you use the experiments process to initiate a more intensive change.
Some proposed changes that are currently up for discussion include reducing the number of skills being assessed, being more prescriptive about review cadence, and moving to using a larger peer group.
We’re the first to admit that our Skill Tree has its flaws, which is why we think of it as a living document, in constant flux and ready to adapt as our organization evolves and adapts too. But we’re also incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made towards a more equitable, transparent, and values-driven process.
The Skill Tree requires all of us to step up and do our part in ensuring that we and our peers are properly compensated for our work, further cementing each individual’s position as a part of a larger collective.
People don’t only have the opportunity to learn to be a strong advocate for themselves, but to take it a step further and create a culture of advocating for others. Everyone is incentivized to take ownership of their own growth and actually has access to the information needed to make that happen.
Instead of competitiveness, the transparency of the Skill Tree helps to create a further sense of trust, community, and solidarity. I can’t wait to see how it continues to evolve along with us.
Thank you to Thu Tran for the radical illustrations used in this article! 😍
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