Why we are building a transparent salary system

Journalism is riding an uncertain wave. With widescale disruption to business models, new distribution platforms emerging every day, and fading public trust in institutions, uncertainty is the only certainty.

In environments like this you need to bake resilience and creativity into the core of your culture.

Over the last six months, we’ve started to change things at the European Journalism Centre. In order to face up to the challenges in both our industry and our own organisation, I realised we needed to be flatter, organisationally.

Decision-making and responsibility needed to be moved away from the leadership structure, and into the teams and roles that actually make things happen on a day-to-day basis.

Icon by James Walker. Diagram by me.

In practical terms, that means we’ve started giving each team working budgets, and much more control over how they are used. Very soon they’ll have communications frameworks that allow them to plan and execute marketing activity. They will set and measure their own metrics.

And it’s already working. We’re looking to be posting organisational cost savings by the end of the year, simply by being more efficient and doing more with less.

But there’s one serious drawback to flatter organisations, and if we don’t fix it, it is going to wreck our team.


Flatter organisations can struggle with staff retention and motivation. Traditional promotional perks like job titles and performance-related pay are the antithesis to the flatter structure. By rewarding individual effort, you potentially undermine the team. People get disenchanted and become less happy. Ultimately, people leave.

While a flatter organisation reduces the problems caused by unhealthy competition among team members, how do people grow?

In recent weeks, we’ve introduced two things to try and help with this.


The first is proper professional development plans through three paths:

  1. Learning by doing. Opportunities to gain skills you want or need inside the organisation, in a supportive, failure-tolerant environment
  2. Paid professional training. Together we decide on where we can up your skills. EJC pays for the course, and your time doing it.
  3. Mentorships. We connect individuals to people, internally and externally, who can take their careers to the next level.

The second thing we’ve introduced is much harder, and much more controversial.

In the next few months, we’ll publish (internally at first) how much we all get paid.

Based on market rates, we’ve devised salary bands for different types of work that show how team members can level-up in a flat structure and be fairly compensated for that. We’ve set a yearly review of the overall system, and we’ll check in four times a year on progression through the bands.

Here’s what it looks like:

Each team has a base salary, calculated from market rates. Every band then increases with a multiplier (Band A might be 1.1x, Band B 1.2x etc.), so the steps are the same for each type of role. We’re still tweaking the numbers, so they’re not included above.

The position of each individual within the bands won’t be made available to the team (unless that person chooses to do so themselves).

The steps are points on a scale, not big jumps, so most people will find themselves somewhere on the spectrum inside a band, with room to move to the top.

Each time we have a check in on progression towards the next band, we’ll be looking at four areas.

  1. Drive and execution. How self-driven are you, and what is the quality of your output like?
  2. Responsibility and accountability. Do you celebrate success, accept failure, own mistakes and look to improve?
  3. Leadership & mentorship. Is the team more important than you? When was the last time you offered to teach someone something?
  4. Communication and sharing. How do you help the flow of information inside, and outside, the organisation? Do you ask useful, challenging questions that help move things forward?

These areas are key to the whole thing — too many salary systems, just like too many professional development systems, are insulated from the mission of the organisation, the desired culture, the metrics for success. What we’re trying to do here is make sure that all of this is inter-connected. That your role and your pay and your training and your one-on-ones and your day-to-day work are discussed and rewarded with consistency and fairness.

We won’t get it right immediately and smart people will still leave this organisation at some point in the future. But ultimately, I believe this will lead to more fairness in our team and better conversations about people’s goals.

Our organisation needs the resilience and agility to create new opportunities for journalists in a changing world. To do that, we have to change ourselves.

Did I say we’re hiring? Come and be our People Officer and help to shape our team’s culture.

I’m indebted to Quip, Buffer and the transparency of many others for helping me develop this (it’s still a huge work in progress).