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Equal Pay: Managing historical pay imbalances





Posted by Justine Woolf on 14 January 2020

Equal Pay: Managing historical pay imbalances

HR Reward | Pay Transparency | Reward Consultancy | Pay Fairness | Equal Pay | Equal Pay Audits | BBC Gender Pay Gap

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The recent case of Samira Ahmed vs. the BBC has highlighted quite a few issues that many organisations, not just the BBC, face on a daily basis when managing pay. 

The one that struck me relates to the historical argument – in this example, when the BBC agreed pay levels for Samira’s comparator Jeremy Vine in 2008, they suggested there was a market pressure to pay him a certain level at that time. However, when Samira began her role on a similar programme four years later, her salary was agreed at a lower level.

This is something that many organisations come up against. Benchmarking is conducted at a point in time and suggests one thing; however it is not necessarily managed on a continual basis, rendering the market defence baseless. How can you prove the market worth of a role if you don’t benchmark regularly?

But more importantly, it’s not just the task of conducting the benchmarking – it’s what you do with it. Too often benchmarking is conducted and then not shared and valuable insights are lost or not recorded (another of the criticisms levelled at the BBC was its lack of record keeping as to why salaries were decided upon at the time). Many of our clients now use our Paylab and Advance online tools to help share market insights and record pay decisions. 

But knowing you have a problem doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address it. People may have been brought in on different salaries because that’s what the market suggested at the time, but this doesn’t absolve you of any responsibility to do something about it. 

Fairness between peers and people doing similar roles is a legislative requirement, but we often see examples where historic pay inequity isn’t addressed, usually due to financial constraints. However, that isn’t a valid reason for not paying similar roles equitably.

The other side to this is the impact that unfair pay has not just on organisations, but on a personal level. Managing reward processes can sometimes make us forget that we are dealing with real people (not job titles) and that unfair treatment in pay can have a huge impact personally.

I recently read ‘Equal’ by Carrie Gracie, the BBC China Editor who also took an equal pay claim against the BBC. In her book she describes how “Pay is how others value us, and if we suddenly discover they value us less than we thought, it feels like a betrayal…. we have fury at oneself for being fooled.” She also quoted Samira Ahmed saying on discovering the facts about the inequality of her pay to male peers, feeling as if bosses had naked pictures of you in their office and laughed every time they saw you.

None of us intends to pay our employees unfairly, but sometimes we lose sight of the human impact and how unfair pay practice feels on an individual level. 

If we are to learn anything from this case, it’s twofold for me – companies absolutely need to ensure they have robust processes in place to manage pay, but at the same time, don’t forget that behind every job title you benchmark or pay decision made on spreadsheet that there is a human behind it and we all deserve to be treated equally. 

To discuss equal pay, or any toher aspect of pay and reward, call 020 3457 0894 or email

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