Monthly Archives: May 2013
Pay Disclosure Leads to More Efficient Markets

I had a great conversation with a mentor/friend yesterday around (non-executive) pay disclosure. It was a good exchange of ideas, so I’m writing about it here.

My thinking on the subject is that widespread accessibility to pay information leads to more efficient markets, in the same way, increased accessibility to information improves market efficiency in any other industry.

The current relationship is as follows: An employer wants an employee for as cheaply as possible, and an employee wants to provide their service for the maximum possible rate. As such, when the two parties seek an agreement there is a give and take (i.e. negotiation).

…The thing is, in the market as currently constructed the employer has a lot more leverage than the employee because the employer has greater access to information. I don’t view this as fair or unfair – it is what it is.

With that said, this creates inefficiency in the market place. Instead of the best people working for the employers most willing to pay for (and assumingly generate the most return from) their services, they instead work for the employers who happen to offer the best extrinsic/intrinsic reward package that they know of.

Increased pay disclosure in the labor market would change this dynamic.

I think the executive pay market is a good example of pay disclosure working in the labor arena. Mostly due to government disclosure rules, CEO/CFO pay rates are widely available to anyone interested (one need only make a trip to the SEC website). As such, when a company evaluates a CEO’s compensation for fairness they benchmark against the executive’s peers.

A CEO that is paid below the median of his/her peer group has an easy argument to make for being underpaid since the data on CEO pay is accurate, available in a consistent format, and easily accessible to anyone interested in it. The question of if an employer can afford a particular CEO is a matter of supply and demand – they can pay the market rate for the talent they want or they can’t. If they can’t afford the market rate for the talent they want then1. There are certainly some real issues with the executive pay structure in the United States (specifically that all employers target p50 or higher which creates a ratchet/lake Wobegon effect), but underpay for services rendered is not one of them. If similar disclosures existed for pay philosophies/market rates, we would probably see less pay disparity, and it would largely be because pay disclosure forced employers to pay competitively for positions that they’ve historically been able to underpay for.they look for someone who will work beneath it. 1

As a huge free-market guy, I certainly respect and endorse the decision of employers (typically) not to disclose pay information (it’s in their best interest not to), but I also recognize that the lack of available wage data creates an economic environment in which the overwhelming majority of employees aren’t paid a wage in line with the value they add to their respective organizations. 2 This not only creates a market inefficiency that harms the employee, but it also damages the economy as a whole. 3

Competition is good for the market (although perhaps not for any individual company). To see this is true one must only think of how almost2. There is a great article from the Economic Policy Institute that summarizes the issue well, but in short: Employers are realizing the gains of increased productivity, but most employees’ wages have held largely flat over the past several decades. any other market outside of the labor market works:

Example: If I go into a store I can see the price of every brand of gum in that store. This doesn’t disrupt the competitive balance of the market. Companies charging higher prices compete with lower-priced gums based on quality, brand, and shelf space/positioning, etc. This same reality holds true for thousands
3. Much of this is also cultural. Employees don’t discuss salaries with one another as it is considered taboo (though this is rapidly changing). Most employers insist employees disclose their current wages before extending a competitive offer (while often refusing to disclose pay range or philosophy on their end). It’s a lopsided arrangement that heavily benefits employers.
(millions?) of other products. Consumers go to gas stations and pay premiums for the products there (as opposed to going to supermarkets) because of convenience. People buy technology devices based as much on supplementary product offerings as the price of the product itself. Even in markets where there is a range/unclear market signals (like when buying a car), both parties are on relatively equal footing since a car customer can choose not to disclose the most he is willing to pay (and has dozens of easily accessible online resources that show what competitors are offering for similar vehicles, etc.). Only the labor market (and a few others) is fundamentally different here because the value of labor is such a closely held secret.

If starting tomorrow employees knew more about the value of their labor, in the short term there would probably be a rise in market turnover. Afterward, however, I think the markets would stabilize; employers would both pay more competitively *and* draw more lines in the sand (there would be fewer counter offers) I also think you would see wages as a whole rise… and employers who couldn’t compete on wages would start to compete on fringe benefits / intrinsic rewards instead.

Of course, pay disclosure on any wide scale level is unlikely to ever happen. Employers paying below p50 (and perhaps even p75) would lose far too much talent to competitors if wage info were to become widely available in the way that executive compensation is.

I will say that I think there will be a shift to the center here going forward (with employees gaining more leverage). Gen Y is much more open to sharing salaries with one another. We typically don’t share salary info internally (there is an implicit understanding that there is blowback if the employer finds out), but we share much of this info freely amongst friends outside of our organizations. Much of my social circle is in HR/Marketing/Finance, and we all know one another’s salaries (and the salaries of friends of friends in some cases as well). If someone in my peer group is unhappy with pay it isn’t hard for him/her to learn the names of 10 companies that pay better for similar work. A decade ago those same people would have just had a sneaking suspicion they were below the market average.

Between informal social networks and sites like Glassdoor / Payscale (which are getting cleaner in their data collecting methodology), employees are becoming more educated around pay. Whether that creates any leverage or not remains to be seen.

Categories: Compensation
Perception of Pay is More Important Than Level of Pay

The idea that one’s perception of pay is a core component of pay satisfaction is a simple – perhaps even intuitive – concept.

If someone perceives they are being compensated at an appropriate rate then the actualities of the market are almost besides the point.

In point of fact, however, this principle is not in wide use. Companies routinely spend significant sums of money raising pay (base and at risk) to drive performance. What they should be doing is looking at how employees perceive the plan design and tinkering with it in more cost effective ways.

Anna Krasniewska Shahidi has an interesting spotlight on World at Work TV that touches on just this idea.

She goes on to expound on sales compensation best practice (individual performance incentives, team based incentives, the role of compensation1. It really is a good video (and it’s less than 7 minutes long). I’d recommend watching the whole thing. functions in administering sales comp etc. 1), but what I want to focus on are three core elements of pay perception that she says drive performance:

1. Fairness – Is effort aligned with returns?
2. Complexity – Is the plan design easy to understand?
3. Risk Component – Is the employee population / individual employee comfortable with the level of pay at risk?

If the answer to all three of these questions is yes then one is well on the way to achieving the most difficult – and important – component of effective plan design:

The sense that the employer has the employee’s best interests in mind. 

If a company’s employees believe they are being taken care of, the details of the compensation plan just become a series of affirmations supporting that belief.

Or do I have it wrong?

Categories: Compensation
CEO Pay Ratio Legislation Up For Repeal

The Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act has1. I love the requirements around disclosure of pay versus performancehave mixed feelings on the clawback policy, and think the say on pay vote provision causes more problems than it solves. both positive and negative components 1, but one thing I definitely hate about the act is the pay ratio mandate.

The HR Policy Association does a fantastic job of explaining what the pay ratio mandate is, so rather than bloviate about the concept I’ll share its simple(r) explanation below:

The pay ratio provision requires publicly held companies to annually calculate the median total compensation for all employees globally, as defined under the SEC’s executive compensation disclosure rules, and disclose a ratio of the median employee’s compensation to the CEO’s compensation.

I want to point out that I get the public outrage around executive pay (although I don’t agree with it). I also want to say that contrary to the claims on many large-cap companies, I don’t think that it would be that difficult for2. To get an employee population median, a company need only pull a listing of their population’s salaries, sort by country, and do a currency conversion to USD. From there, it’s just a matter of querying the median salary from the data set. Any company with a half-decent HRIS could get a reasonable approximation of this number in under a day or so. most organizations to calculate the ratio.

A gambler counts out cash while making a proposition bet on Super Bowl XLV at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada January 27, 2011. The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers will compete in Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas on February 6. REUTERS/Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Yet I am still against the pay ratio mandate for two reasons:

1. I don’t think investors really care about the number

2. The number literally doesn’t matter as it concerns the health of an organization

The 2nd point isn’t an exaggeration. In a May 23rd testimonial before a House Subcommittee, in response to an AFL-CIO claim that “[the bill to abolish the Dodd-Frank pay ratio mandate] is designed to hide material information from investors, encourage runaway CEO pay and increase economic inequality,” Center On Executive Compensation CEO Charlie Tharp pointed out that there is no correlation between company performance and the CEO Pay Ratio. Tharp drew attention to the fact that based on data on the AFL-CIO’s own website, companies it considers to be “great” have a 412.5 average pay ratio compared against a 354 average pay ratio of all S&P 500 companies.

If anything, the evidence points the other way here.

Further, CEO pay represents only a few basis points for most large-cap companies. Ergo, the cost isn’t a concern either.

The only point of the ratio at this point is to satiate a small slice of the public that is (pointlessly) upset about what executives makeIn my opinion, that isn’t a good enough reason to enforce the mandate.

…With all that said, this is going to be a hot button issue for some time to come. I’d ultimately like to see the pay ratio issue put to bed so that companies (and the consultants they employ to advise around this stuff), investors, the media, and analysts can focus on more important things.

Categories: Compensation
Building Great Benches Starts With Helping Your People Understand Themselves

Throughout life, as human beings our goals and priorities have a tendency to shift.

We don’t want children, and then we do. We’re mobile and then we’re not. We care about promotional opportunities, and then we find the job we really want and settle down. We’re hungry to maximize earnings, and then we make “enough” and begin to focus on other things.

In this way life is much like a river’s current. It is always changing, and will never be exactly the same across any two moments in time.

This makes talent management difficult. When doing succession planning there is no way to really know just how well our best laid plans are going to work out. As HR professionals we encourage the business to invest time and resources to develop the people identified as future leaders… but there is still so much about those people that we just can’t predict.

Human beings are volatile… unpredictable. This reality doesn’t mesh too well with talent management, however, because succession planning is really all about molding future leaders via exposure to critical experiences. The idea that those experiences may not produce the desired effect from a developmental standpoint turns much of the succession planning process on its head.

I don’t really know how much of talent management is art and how much is science… I have a sneaking suspicion that neither component is the most important piece of the puzzle, though.

Instead, the focus should be on developing a well defined company culture that provides employees with the flexibility to identify their strength, weaknesses, likes, dislikes etc. This is how an organization stocks its benches with the right talent.

A company that gives its employees a firm sense of what it means to work there – and provides them with the opportunities to identify where they can make the biggest impact – is an organization that will always have the right people in the right jobs at the right time.

Categories: Talent Management
What’s a Long Weekend Worth?

With Monday being Memorial Day, I –  like many others – had a three day weekend. Consequently, I had some time to catch up with old friends and family.

It was a much-needed hiatus, and it got me thinking…

What is a long weekend worth?

If you could have an extra two weeks of vacation would you give up 4-5% of your annual pay? What would you trade for five more floating holidays a year? Ten? How much money would you leave on the table for a one month sabbatical (on top of vacation) every few years?

As people get older / have families / become more financially secure / etc., time off generally grows in importance.

Despite this reality, however, time off is something that most organizations don’t quantify to their employee populations. These companies often up-sell time off as a perquisite in the interview process, but it’s relatively rare for a company to try to assign a dollar value to such a perk.

…This is mostly because the value of time off varies depending on1. I personally place very little value on vacation time. I’ll relax when I retire.who the person is that’s receiving it. 1 As such, most organizations don’t try to evaluate how much time off is worth to employees (and in the process, they’re probably leaving something on the table).

With that said, outside of just using a straight valuation of “time off = salary” (at either an hourly or weekly/semi-annual rate depending on exemption status) I can’t really think of a strong methodology for objectively valuating time off across an entire employee population.

Categories: General HR
Your Company’s Pay Philosophy May Impact Your Wages More Than Your Performance…

“High Pay” is based largely on frame of reference.

First things first: This is post number 100 1. As such, I want to thank everyone (anyone?) who has read every day since the beginning.

…With that said, today I want to write a post inspired by an interesting conversation a friend and I had late Tuesday evening. We were discussing what degrees / skills etc. have the most compensable value in the market, before eventually touching on something relatively fascinating:

In many instances a company’s compensation philosophy has a larger impact on salary than performance and skill-set(s) do.

Allow me to illustrate:

In the above bell curve graph (courtesy of, we see that the median salary for an HR Manager is roughly $88,186. No data set is perfect, but let’s assume for the purposes of this post that this is an accurate picture of the market for HRMs.

Now, let’s look at how drastically compensation philosophy can impact what the median employee in a population earns:

In this hypothetical we would get the following

We took our identified median (p50 of the U.S. national average for HR Managers), and divided it by half of the range spread. This is expressed formulaically as Min=Mid/(Spread/2). Put another way, we took $88,186 and divided it by 1.25. To get the maximum, we took the minimum and multiplied it by the range (in this case 1.5).

This is expressed formulaically as: Max=Min*Spread. We can check our math here by taking (Max-Min)/Min to get the range spread (it should be 50% in this case).

For our first example, let’s assume a hypothetical widget technology company wants to target the 50th percentile of the U.S. national average salary for the midpoint of their HR Manager pay grade. Let us further assume that the company intends for the median employee in the HR Manager population to fall at the midpoint of the job’s pay range. Finally, let us assume that the pay range spread (i.e. the distance between the bottom and top of the range) is 50%.

These are all reasonable assumptions, and in line with best practice for what a company might do with its compensation plan design.

No let’s look at what happens if we hold everything else the same, but target p75 of the market as our midpoint:

Now finally, let’s look at an HR Manager working at a company targeting p10 of the market as a midpoint:

WOW! The maximum of the p10 company’s range is lower than the minimum of the p75 company’s range! This means that the lowest paid HR Manager at a company paying at p75 of the market for its midpoint (with a 50% wide range) makes more than the highest paid HR Manager working at a company paying p10 for its market midpoint (50% wide range).

Finally, as you can see above even the difference between a p50 and p75 company is substantial (nearly $14,000 at the midpoint). Put another way: In this example, an employee at a p50 company has to be in roughly the 90th percentile of wage earners within his population to earn the same amount as someone in the 50th percentile at the p75 company.

The pay for performance implications here are troubling to say the least, but they illustrate an interesting fact about pay in the marketplace: It is highly variable.

With that all said…

Closing, I want to point out that this *doesn’t* mean you’re better off finding a company with a market-leading pay philosophy and trying to get a job with them. Even if your goal is to maximize lifetime earnings, you’re ultimately probably best off sticking with the company that offers you the greatest opportunities for progression.

An HR Executive at a company targeting just p10 of the market for their midpoint is still likely to out-earn an HR Manager working at a company that3. Caveat: One should always consider the time value of money when doing these sorts of cost benefits analyses as well. If it takes 25 years to make the move from HR Manager to HR Executive at a p25 company, it’s entirely possible you’d have been better off financially having spent your career as an HR Manager at a p75 company (even if you never actually make the leap to executive).targets p90 of the market for their midpoint. 3

As a general rule the biggest jobs pay the best, so look to work at places where you have the greatest opportunity to move up.

Categories: Compensation
Want to Increase Employee Engagement? Open the Lines of Communication

I can’t quantify this as a percentage, but I can say based on anecdotes taken from peers across multiple industries and functional spaces that most organizations have a huge problem with communication. Discussions that need to be had aren’t had at the very highest levels, and the problem becomes more1. Some groups are better at addressing this than others. Generation Y is notoriously collaborative, and as they start to occupy leadership positions many of the communication issues I’m talking about here will start to fade away. pronounced the further one progresses down an org chart. 1

Managers aren’t transparent with their direct reports around why or how decisions are made, pay and performance criteria are often arbitrary, shrouded in secrecy, or both, and major decisions made by senior leaders are seldom first filtered through lower levels of the organization for feedback (or to generate buy-in).

Some groups are better at addressing this than others. Generation Y is notoriously collaborative, and as they start to occupy leadership positions many of the communication issues I’m talking about here will start to fade away.

Corporations today have a communication problem, and it fosters distrust among employees. They often either don’t believe what their leaders tell them, or else don’t expect their leaders to tell them anything of value at all. So they withdraw.

I don’t have an easy answer around how to take on this issue, but I believe companies that start to rise to the challenge now are going to have a built in cultural advantage in the coming years as the economy picks up and employers start having to compete for talent again. Companies whose employees buy-in to organizational initiatives, trust management, and feel they have insight and input into the direction of the enterprise are going to be able to attract a much higher caliber of candidate than competitors who fail on these counts.

Categories: Employee Engagement

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