Compare and contrast pay rates and don’t misread confidence for competence. Cassandra Keller tells it like it is.

Photos: Lindi Heap.

It’s easy to slip into thinking the habits of pay and working conditions that you may have experienced as a graduate or employee are normal. It’s up to each employer to make a conscious decision to do things differently. Just because something is an accepted part of a professional culture does not make it right or even legal.

The pay inequity beast

The habit of many businesses – not just architectural ones – is to wait to give pay rises until they are pushed for or demanded by staff. As a workplace practice this is a sure way to feed the pay inequity beast, because there are many examples where confidence can come without competence. It’s also possible to be unconsciously convinced that confidence is competence.

You also need to ask yourself if it’s reasonable to line your pockets with the money earned by your staff who may be reticent at putting themselves forward for a pay rise. Ask yourself: just because someone doesn’t ask for a pay rise, does that mean they don’t deserve one? Just as we expect clients to pay market rate or above, shouldn’t we do the same for our staff?

A level playing field

At annual staff reviews, salary increases should be considered (when practice income warrants it) on a merit and experience basis as a matter of course for all staff members, regardless of their expectations or what they ask for. If one pay increase is to be given, consider how it sits with every staff member with similar experience and capacity. Create a simple set of expectations for staff to achieve an improvement in salary relative to their level.

For example, if three staff of the same experience level all meet the same expectations, then all must be paid the same amount. If this isn’t the case, then a clear written justification (as an internal HR record) should be created that clearly articulates the difference. Expectations in writing about key targets must be given as feedback to the other two associates so that they have a chance to meet these goals next time. A theoretical example of this would be that three associates of the same experience level and capacity would earn the same. However, if one has repeatedly brought and retained new clients to the firm and the other two have not, then some difference in salary may be justified.

This difference must be real and quantifiable, and you must check your own unconscious bias in this assessment by writing out the justification and having another manager confidentially review the decision. It’s easy to fall into the trap of paying someone more because you relate to them, like them or are persuaded by their own sales pitch about themselves.

Is that new hire really worth it?

The other sure-fire way to feed the pay inequity beast is to hire at a higher rate because you are desperate to snag the clever young grad or ambitious mid-career professional. Ask yourself: is this new hire coming at a rate that is fair and matching the relative experience and pay of existing staff members? If you can’t live without them, then be prepared to match that level and adjust other salaries accordingly. It could end up being a seriously expensive hire if it impacts five other staff salaries in equity terms. Is the new hire really worth it or do you define a salary cap appropriate to their experience and capacity and stick to it?

A transparent pay scale

A table with relative staff experience and expected capacity by level should be kept up to date by the practice manager to make this process simpler and transparent in the case of an audit. That is not to say it is necessarily appropriate to disclose salaries amongst employees – but do keep written records with clear logic which would stack up to scrutiny. Obviously, it’s your duty as an employer to comply with relevant employee awards. It is also your duty to maintain a fair and equitable pay scale that does not discriminate by default or inaction or unconscious bias on your part.

The team at Clarke Keller.


Cassandra Keller is a principal and co-owner with Justine Cox of Canberra-based Clarke Keller. The practice of 22 focuses on designing high quality learning, living and work places that enhance users’ lives. She has extensive project experience with leading design practices in Australia and the USA. Cassandra enjoys fostering and developing the skills of her highly capable team and in her spare time supports a local ‘parenting women in crisis’ charity Karinya House.

A version of this article was first published by the ACT Gender Equity Taskforce in their getDEEP (Diverse Equitable Employment and Practice) booklet. getDEEP is intended as an introduction to some of the resources, research and expertise available on issues of equitable practice, including Parlour and the Parlour Guides to Equitable Practice. The booklet is available for download here. A version of the interview has been republished here with permission.

The first Parlour Guide to Equitable Practice covers Pay Equity. The guide offers simple suggestions to assist practices in evaluating, establishing and maintaining pay equity, and to help employees seeking to achieve gender pay equity. It also makes suggestions as to how the profession as a whole can assist in addressing the issue.