Written by
Ruth Thomas
Senior Consultant and Co-Founder, CURO

05 December 2018

Most organizations are probably now already working on planning budgets, starting to process market data and getting ready for the compensation review season for this year end; such is the cyclical world we live in in Reward. Before you get too deep into planning, this article looks at the seven deadly sins of the compensation season, shares some of the common pitfalls when managing the compensation process, and offers some sage advice for your planning.

The 7 Deadly Sins (of Compensation)

Sin 1 – Too much focus on process not outputs

The compensation cycle has become an event-driven activity that, from a time management perspective, is all-consuming. In HR and reward we are often trapped in administrative activities, bogged down chasing spreadsheets, corralling data, identifying and dealing with exception populations and, as a result, are often too busy to fully contribute strategically and therefore miss the opportunity to add real business value.

Even from a process management perspective our approach can be lackluster; dusting off last year’s process, rather than considering what the key business imperatives are for the coming year, or working with complex processes that have evolved historically with workarounds which are often just temporary fixes that don’t address real compelling issues.

It’s important not to get bogged down in low value tasks so make sure you take the opportunity to streamline processes or automate where possible to free you to focus on high impact activities.

Sin 2 – A one-size-fits-all approach

As organizations become more complex & global and our employee base more diverse, it is increasingly apparent that a one-size-fits-all approach will not work for reward.

It is a delicate balance between maintaining a consistent approach to your reward philosophy whilst meeting the needs of different employees and jurisdictions. Your overarching reward philosophy needs to be strong, but allow for segmentation to meet varying employee needs - and this should extend to the compensation review itself.

With continuing constrained wage growth it is easy to fall into the trap of weak pay differentiation when allocating pay rewards – sometimes known as the 'peanut butter approach'. If you really want to optimize compensation spend, you need to move away from a bell curve approach that simply ends up allocating the majority of your pay budgets to average performers, and instead to one that recognizes your key talent.

Sin 3 – Too much focus on budget size and not how it is spent

The budget planning and modelling phase of the compensation review can actually take longer and have more deliberation applied than the allocation phase.

Whilst there are many factors to take into consideration (The CIPD annual reward management survey from 2010 lists the key influences on the size of pay review as: Ability to pay; Inflation; Movement in market pay rates; Recruitment and retention issues; The ‘going rate’ of pay awards elsewhere; Level of government funding/pay guidelines; Union/staff pressures) there is often more focus on budget size than how it is spent.

It is easy to fall into the trap of treating the process as an expense management process rather than an opportunity to recognize your key talent, or address compelling business outcomes.

Sin 4 – Poor data readiness

At a recent client event focusing on business analytics, a surprising revelation was how the annual compensation review has become the key compelling event that drives employee data accuracy annually.

Obviously with every employee normally touched during the compensation review in some way - and the resulting impact on pay - it's key to get it right. But managing data can be the most time-consuming part of any review season with a significant proportion of time spent gathering, corralling and interpreting data. Some of the key issues faced are:

• The ability to access and calibrate all the data required
• The accuracy of employee data, particularly for pro-ration calculations
• Sharing data securely
• Key person dependency on spreadsheets and data sources

Sin 5 – Lack of risk assessment of compensation process

After the financial crisis we have seen more focus on properly addressing risk assessment as it applies to reward, with effort focused on risk-aligned compensation allocation and reward governance. But addressing risk does not always extend to the actual compensation review process. With nearly 45% of companies still using spreadsheets at some point in their review cycle, a key concern has to be data security.

There is also significant risk in data integrity. Over the years working with companies on their review processes, I have heard some horror stories of wrong awards being communicated to employees - with some potentially litigious outcomes.

Sin 6 – Lack of manager empowerment

In surveys identifying areas of reward risk, often cited is poor line management capability to manage performance and reward messaging. What we should be focusing on is an effective transfer of process ownership from HR to line managers.

Concern is often expressed that allowing line managers discretion in allocating the budget may be at the expense of consistency of approach. There is definitely a lack of trust prevailing.

What we should be focusing on is an effective transfer of process ownership from HR to line managers, empowering them with the information and decision support tools they need to make optimal pay decisions. They make business expense decisions every day - why not trust them to do the same with pay budgets?

Sin 7 – Poor communication

Having made it through the review process, there is a tendency to breathe a huge sigh of relief, when actually the communication phase is actually the most critical. Not least because reward communications is very important for creating perceptions of fairness and equity, and communicating reward issues poorly can erode these perceptions.
Ensuring employees receive timely communication with the right messaging from their managers will go some way to ensuring employees feel recognized for their contribution. In fact, in engagement surveys, open and honest discussion around pay was found to be more important than other typical measures of employee engagement.

So, as you progress through compensation review season, take a moment to reflect on whether you are committing any of the cardinal sins outlined above and consider the following check list:

• Ensure strategic context is reinforced; don’t lose sight of the ROI on compensation spend and the need to deliver business imperatives through people.
• Consider moving from an HR-owned process to one that engages all stakeholders, and empowers line managers to make optimal talent decisions.
• Ensure appropriate risk assessment is applied at all points of your process - particularly on data security and integrity.
• Prepare for data readiness as early as possible.
• Make sure every employee receives timely communication with the right messaging.