Time, value and a bonus

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Introduction

I was at a City lunch in a conversation with a senior executive of an American bank and her partner, a gifted financial analyst.  We discussed the impact of bonus accrual accounting standards on balance sheets.  Then she made a startling statement.  “The accruals cost us millions, but the executives value their bonus at a fraction of its face value.”   We then spent two hours discussing that statement.

In both women’s eyes the issues are the trends in executive compensation to long deferral periods, bonuses held in stock and the potential value reduction through future downward adjustment and claw back. The issue for executives is economics 101.  A dollar has less value tomorrow than today and uncertainty over the number of tomorrow’s dollars reduce the value still further.  Yet, the increasing costs of executive incentives weigh heavy on the corporate balance sheet and in the eyes of the shareholder advocacy groups.

Pressures on bonus structures

The demand for longer bonus deferral periods reflects the perceived risk horizon of the impact of executive decisions.  The driver for deferral into stock is to increase executive alignment with shareholder interests.  Increasing conditionality around claw back of bonuses paid and value reduction of unvested payments is a reaction to executive misdemeanors.  All of these are worthy objectives – but they come with unintended consequences.

Impact

The cumulative impact of these changes is that the face value of the incentives becomes close to meaningless to the recipients.  Future value becomes unknowable.  Long deferral periods lead to great uncertainty as to value (the very basis of the Black Sholes calculation).  Stock value is heavily impacted by external events such as market crashes. Decisions made in good faith can, with several years’ hindsight; look wrong if not negligent, leading to high levels of management risk aversion.  The cash flows on which an executive has to base her future become smoke and mirrors.

Organisational penalties

The core of a reward strategy is to attract, retain and motivate.  If the recipient of a reward does not value the payment at the same level as the cost to the organisation, the strategy fails. Motivation and retention is reduced if lower value than the cost is attached to the award.  Yet, the balance sheet, P&L and share dilution have heavy organisational effects in both dollar and reputational terms.

The impact on the individual executive’s behavior is also meaningful.  Risk aversion becomes important to avoid penalty.  Capital protection rather that appreciation becomes a driver to reduce future uncertainty.  As we have seen in some labor markets, upward pressure on base salary and thus dollar certainty is increasing.

Unintended consequences – lose lose…

We are at a tipping point.  Remuneration costs are rising, for executives value is falling; external criticism is increasing rapidly as is remuneration regulation. There is a vicious circle of increasing face value to make future value meaningful; something of a tail chasing strategy. The system is broken.  Not yet beyond repair, but the longer the malaise festers the more painful the eventual solution.

A root and branch review is needed and needed now.  Executive compensation has always been complex and opaque.  Its death rattle is now being sounded – at least in its current form.  The reward profession needs to move contemplation from its navel to this vexed subject before it is too late; although what the alternatives are I shudder to contemplate.

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Pay round processes – a “big data” approach. Including the add-on benefits to recruitment, training and development and succession planning

Introduction

The key to using data intelligently in HR is to start with the business numbers.  This article is about how to structure a pay round driven by business results.  It focusses on data rather than the normal subjective judgements and gaming that goes on in the vast majority of companies at pay increase time.  The objective is to reward what matters to the business.

This is a long post; but it is not going to give the full detail of the approach.  This will differ in each organisation.  It is a new approach in thinking about the pay round process and the article gives the broad concepts and approaches to the subject rather than a detailed “Dummies guide”.  (I can provide one of these for a reasonable fee).

Effective and efficient

This approach is based on good use of data and behavioural psychology.  It generates rewards for behaviour that is important to the business.  By doing this it sends out a clear message both on culture and on what behaviours are rewarded in the workplace.  This creates the “virtuous circle” of reinforcing profitable behaviour leading ultimately to high performing teams.

You should use this approach.  It gives hard statistical evidence as to why pay increases were, or were not given.  It gives a better return on your pay increase investment.  You are rewarding behaviour that benefits the organisation; not a managerial whim or some perception of employee merit based on last week’s conversation.

In the beginning

Like all good science, start with a test group.  Select a discrete group of employees where business and HR data is available.

Key business success metrics

The key business success metrics for this group need to be clearly defined.  As an example, if looking at sales staff then consider sales revenue, the conversion rate of sales calls to sales, repeat sales and so on.  It is advisable to weight these business success metrics from the most important to the least important; always focussing on the bottom line impact of these factors.

Rank the employees

The next step is to rank the employees against the business metrics.  This must be undertaken strictly against the business metrics.  It is difficult, but is an essential part of the process.  It may well be that your “best” employees are not those who score highest on the metrics.  Stick to your original business metrics.  Do not change them because the employees in the list do not fit your perception of “good”.

What makes these employees “good”?

This is the most difficult part of the process, but the most important.  This is where the power of big data starts to prove itself.  Now take the HR data on each of the top employees to see what common factors make these employees perform better against the business metrics than others.  This could include:

  • Time in role
  • Education level
  • Personality profile
  • Supervisor
  • Training courses
  • Previous roles
  • Previous employer(s)
  • Outside interests
  • Social network size
  • Email activity – internal and external
  • Sales calls length and frequency
  • Time and attendance data
  • Daily newspaper and magazine reading
  • Social profiling (you can use postcodes for this)

As long as you have the data and you should have the data, you can include it as a factor.

You will now need some strong statistical knowledge to undertake a regression analysis to identify the common factors for your high-ranking employees.  I am aware there are a number of statistical techniques that can be used at this stage.  You pay your money and you take your choice.

The outputs from this exercise will depend both on the richness of the data you hold on employees, the type and location of your organisation and your company culture.

It is important to note that this technique is not limited to revenue generating activities.  We can build success factors for HR, cost of hire, attrition, benefit spend, payroll costs and so on.  Or much the same in Compliance, for example.  External audits passed, compliance costs, compliance checks carried out – you can fill in the blanks.

Results part one

What you will have, if the process has been carried out correctly, is a list of individual factors that predict behaviour that support business success.  Some of the factors will appear not to be relevant; and I am aware that correlation does not imply causation.  Some of the factors will be surprising, do not rule them out or ignore them.  GO WHERE THE DATA TAKES YOU.  Human beings are programmed to look for patterns where none exist and make choices based on often faulty heuristics.   The data may not always take you in the right direction – but normally it will.

The ranking

This is the easier part.  You rank the employees by the factors.  This process is already part carried out by the earlier steps.  The exact nature of the ranking will depend on the analysis.  One approach may be to rank the employees by the factors with the highest correlations to business metrics success.

The pay increase allocation process

In an ideal world you would allocate 80% of your budgeted increase to the top 20% of employees.  That is because it is statistically likely that 80% of your revenue comes from this top 20% of employees.

This process largely removes the subjective elements and gaming that goes on around pay allocation in most organisations.  Decisions can be justified and supported by the data.  A clear signal is sent out to employees as to what is being rewarded.

Extra benefits to recruitment, training and development and succession planning

By having identified the factors that are correlated to business success (provided you have chosen the business metrics correctly) you have a powerful dataset to aid recruitment, training and succession planning.

Recruitment

You have a list of factors that predict business success and effective employees.  Using these factors a template can be developed to quickly and factually identify those applicants who are most likely to do well in your organisation.  It may not be the only measure; but it will provide an excellent screening tool.

Training and development

The factors that lead to success have been identified; thus you can train and develop employees based on those success factors.  A provable bigger bang for the training buck.

Succession planning

From the analytical process you will have identified both the success factors and those supervisors who have the most successful teams.  A variant on this exercise can be used to identify what factors make up the most successful supervisors and managers and build your succession plans accordingly.

Power of big data

The above discussion shows how HR data can be used to drive business success.  One of the tenants of big data is to automate the analysis of the data.  With a little work it is easy to automate the data scrapping processes to allow the identified factors to be ranked against employees and allocate the pay increases once the basic rules have been formulated.  Having the data available and categorised allows for very powerful management information reports and data visualizations.

Warnings and alternatives

The above process is, for the majority of organisations, new and perhaps frightening.  It will not work the first or second attempts.  However, the very process of data scraping and analysis will yield a honey store of good things.  The process can be changed and refined to fit the organisation.

This is different HR.

It is data driven and business focused.  Some will argue it takes HR away from its traditional routes; why not?  HR has not yet earned a full place at the board table with its current approach.  Finance, IT and other support functions have a greater claim, because they have the data and facts to support cost activity.

Conclusion

This concept is fairly new for most organisations and will take:

  • A change in mind-set
  • A robust data store of employee and business data
  • A strong understanding of the underlying statistical processes to carry out the appropriate analysis
  • HR working with Finance, IT and data professionals, statisticians and the business to get the clear benefits from the approach.

When this approach is fully working it provides a rich and effective way of spending the salary budget as well as providing a firm “big data” base for HR strong analytics.

Working this way gives credibility to HR and builds up a subjective data bank of HR information with which to support business decision-making.  Implemented appropriately it is a win win for all parties in the annual pay round process as well as for the wider HR community.

Employee benefits – cultural mood-music

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Employee benefits are often overlooked when thinking about organisational culture. Yet they are a powerful framing or reframing mechanism for amplifying the message in our organisation of “the way we do things around here”. Like a good base guitarist they can provide the rhythm underscoring the melody of our set piece riff.

Messages – explicit and implicit
There are a number of signpost continuums that are reflected in our benefit offerings;

  • Traditional to playful (think pensions vs bike to work)
  • Collective to individualistic (Set menu vs flex)
  • Paternalistic to intelligent consumer
  • Slow moving to early adaptor (Notice board vs Twitter)
  • Tea dance to Lo-fi (Think tea trolley to “Sushi made at your desk” (Hey, is that a new benefits concept?))

You get the idea. The what and the how of benefits delivery as well as the communication sets the mood music for how our organisation is perceived by employees and the wider world.

Conclusion
Benefits are not something that should just happen. They are an important rhythm to the music of our organisational culture. Not up there with the lead guitar perhaps; but an essential, if overlooked nuance and shading of the message of who we are and who we want to be.