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Opinion: B.C.'s proposed pay legislation unlikely to bring about meaningful transparency

It is a cliché that the lack of a growth strategy for British Columbia’s economy owes to a lack of business experience in cabinet.
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The devil is always in the details, writes Kirk LaPointe on B.C.'s proposed Pay Transparency Act

It is a cliché that the lack of a growth strategy for British Columbia’s economy owes to a lack of business experience in cabinet. 

Only two ministers – Brenda Bailey in jobs, economic development and innovation, and Bruce Ralston, in forestry – have significant ties. As a result the government approaches business matters from the perspective of how it can police more than how it can propel. 

Witness its proposed Pay Transparency Act this week. The headline as the legislation was introduced on the eve of International Women’s Day was its laudable ambition to close the gender salary gap.

But it hints of no teeth where it would matter and needless fangs where it doesn’t.

The Canadian Women’s Foundation says women earn 90 cents for every dollar men make in Canada, in part attributable to the labour each gender disproportionately performs. In the U.S., the gap has stagnated for two decades at 82 cents. The province says the gap is more like the American than Canadian data: A 17-per-cent difference. The disparity is more acute for persons of colour or Indigenous workers.

While it is agreed that the Canadian salary gap is gradually reducing, this ought to have been settled through systems change and business conduct generations ago. 

If we can agree something must be done, we cannot agree on what. The proposed law has a nuisance effect and a shaming effect, but it is hard to see how it will have a material effect without many more steps. 

The most involved of the Pay Transparency Act provisions is to require large public corporations, then large private businesses, then smaller private ones to produce annual gender salary gap reports. (This was, by the way, what was proposed in private member’s legislation brought forward unsuccessfully five times by former Liberal MLA Stephanie Cadieux.) 

The devil is always in the details, and it would have been polite if the province had spelled them out, but it appears it believes this wave of naming and shaming through a central registry and report will do much to suffice in driving down discrimination.

My sense is that the law is window dressing until we really know how the province will enforce compliance, and that any enforcement had better involve more discussions to allay the concerns of the business community because it’s more now of a virtue signal than a virtuous success. To be so it needs proper business input and buy-in, and I can’t see that in this so far. 

The law also has critics in employment law and human resources. 

It intervenes in two ways material to recruitment, neither likely material to the narrowing of the gender salary gap. 

Starting in November, employers will need to publicly provide salary ranges when they post job advertisements. The skeptic in me doubts posting a range of zero to $1 million will satisfy the requirement; it’ll require some specificity, but be superficial overall.

If they wish to thumb their noses, employers and employees have dozens of ways to collude and circumvent this – performance bonuses, project-related incentives, stock options, various allowances, vacation time, overtime, perquisites, and on and on. If either party wishes to entrench salary discrimination, there remain avenues galore. Short of a leak of everyone’s tax return, mischief can prevail.

Another intervention by the law is another area of dubious assistance. Once the legislation takes effect, it will become illegal to ask job applicants for information about their salary history. This will create a bit of a dance in the dark and likely many more failed recruitment efforts – something businesses do not have time to afford, particularly with the current labour shortages.

In my experience conducting hundreds of job interviews, even when there are clearly stated salary ranges there comes a stage in the process where the employer pragmatically needs to know if the candidate can be afforded. It is a waste of time for both of you otherwise; a meeting could have been an email.

You need to be able to ask about salary expectations, which, yes, of course, hints of one’s salary history. (I’ve occasionally been asked to prove it with a pay slip.) Even with this new posted salary range requirement, there are going to be times where it will be necessary to exceed it to get someone – as many businesses tell me they need to do today in this high-employment market. 

But if employers can’t broach the subject, there won’t at times be adequate information to compete for talent by straying from the budgeted range. In a competitive job market, I can anticipate where an offer will be insufficient unless that person tells you – and in effect breaks the spirit of this provision in the law that advantages employees over employers. 

You won’t be able to ask the applicant why he, she or they wouldn’t accept an offer; to do so would be to veer into expectations compared to the offer. You won’t get the best person because you won’t know what it would have taken. This just doesn’t make sense.

The law will outlaw any punishment against employees who share their salary information with other employees or potential recruits. I’ve never witnessed this, but I sense the provision has a good intention of policing the gap. In other jurisdictions it has been credited with narrowing it. We need to speak out on the salary gap, but the law won’t do more than symbolically speak.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and executive editor of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.