In Compensation Cost Or Investment People Matters Apr10
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Compensation - Cost or Investment?
Apr 1st 2010
By Reena Wahi & Simran Oberoi
Is compensation a cost or investment? This is a dilemma that every Human Resource professional faces year
on year when convincing CEOs and CFOs to approve the year’s salary and bonus budgets. And this question is
now even more critical as India is seeing a spiral increase in compensation payouts, which impacts the overall
cost arbitrage of India’s competitiveness in the global economy. Compensation strategies, so far, have been
designed within the four walls of the Human Resource office and are not yet topics of discussion in board
rooms, with the exception of the CEO’s pay package!
Traditionally, most of the companies in India (including MNCs) view communicating and tracking compensation
from a cost perspective since they use the Cost-to-Company (CTC) approach rather than the Value-to-
Employee approach for all key aspects – attraction of talent, reward communication and monitoring pay
competitiveness. There are various reasons for this:
Limited role of HR in strategic decision making: Historically, the Human Resource department was
accustomed to operating within pre-defined budgets that were provided to them by the business and finance
teams. They had limited or no influence on decisions pertaining to the business strategy and its linkage to
people strategy, which subsequently defined the compensation strategy.
Emphasis on external market practice for cash pay components: When organizations monitor
employee remuneration as a cost, they tend to be followers, that is, they track market trends to compare the
competitiveness of base salary or total cash and their requirement is to match the market pay practice. Such
practice tends to negate the effective use of compensation as an effective tool of organizational strategy.
Furthermore, it undercuts the organisation’s ability to reward employee vis-a-vis its top-line and bottom-line
Compensation structure design primarily focus on tax effectiveness: In India, allowances form a large
part of compensation structure and one of the primary reason behind this has been the various tax deductible
provisions in the Direct and Corporate Tax structure of India. Every April, the focus has been to re-design the
architecture to accommodate these changes and minimize tax outflow with little consideration of whether the
structure works to drive sustainable performance or not.
High fixed cash components in the pay mix: According to Hay Group PayNet (our comprehensive global
compensation and benefits platform), the total value of allowances adds up to 40% of the Total Remuneration
and matches the Base Salary values almost equally across levels. With this type of structure it is imperative
that organizations tend to view compensation as a cost to be monitored.
The result of viewing and managing compensation solely as a cost is that the organizations develop strategies
that culminate in short term solutions.
In turn, this leads to:
Disengagement rather than higher engagement: Companies that were using compensation as key
means of retaining employees (either through higher salaries or retention bonuses) were forced to reduce
employee cost. Compensation budgets being squeezed or reduced to minimal levels combined with few other
alternatives being built in, led to high levels of disengagement and a drop in motivation. According to Hay
Group’s research in 2009, a review of 1,249 leaders from high-profile organizations operating in the Indian
market revealed that over 60% of the leaders were not engaging the employees they led and were in fact,
demotivating them; only 18% were creating and engaging environment that encouraged high performance.
Operating cost pressures: In terms of monetary cost, employee costs constitute almost 50-80% of the
overall operating cost of the company mainly because the quantum of compensation payouts is determined by
market demand and supply factors of the job, and not by relative job worth and its contribution. Moreover, the
lack of corresponding productivity and performance on the part of the employee leads to enhanced pressures
on overall operating cost.
Pay structure not linked to performance: When the pay structure is more cash-centric especially focusing
on fixed components, it does not drive performance.
With companies now focusing more on rebuilding profitability, reward is more under the microscope with CEOs
asking the following questions:
1. What performance are we getting in return for what we pay?
2. What is the effectiveness of all the costs allocated to reward?
3. What is the ROI?
Hay Group’s recent global research paper “Changing Face of Reward” highlights that reward is now a top
management issue with the CEOs and boards getting closely involved. Therefore, it is time for Human
Resources now to manage compensation as P&L and learn the art of striking a fine balance between cost
containment and investment maximization. This is more relevant in the Indian context where structural
changes in tax laws will require more innovative approaches to attract and retain employees.
So, how does one achieve that balance?
Periodic realignment of reward strategy to ensure its alignment to business strategy: With the dynamic nature
of business these days with business models, strategy and operating models changing frequently, it is critical
for HR to periodically review the alignment of reward to business. This can be effectively done with the use of
a Total Reward Framework that aligns business needs and employee needs.
ROI to be the key metric on HR Scorecards: Along with other HR metrics like attrition, employee
engagement scores, et al, ROI too should now become an important metric on the HR Scorecard and the
effectiveness of all tangible and intangible reward programmes should be tracked periodically.
Pay for relative worth of the job rather than the person: When compensation is treated as a cost,
organizations tend to focus on paying the person rather than for the job size. They prefer to calculate the
feasibility of hiring a person depending on what the employee would cost them, rather than identifying the
overall value that is being invested in the new employee because the job that he/she is performing is critical.
Also organizations tend to create internal equity issues when they use the cost approach by hiring at different
pay levels irrespective of the defined pay range for a job. If they use the investment approach they would be
defining a pay range for a certain role/job and hiring within that.
Performance is the new mantra: Organizations which track employee pay as cost, tend to provide
inflationary or purely market based salary increases. However, if compensation is an investment, then merit-
based increases are vital since they recognize past performance and drive future performance as well. Variable
pay is one of the critical levers for driving performance and engaging employees in organizational goals. Apart
from incentives and bonuses, differentiated reward structures for high performers and critical roles would help
in using limited budgets effectively.
The challenges that lay ahead are developing and delivering reward programs that drive performance and
retaining and motivating talent without affecting the bottom-line.. This may sound like a tall order. However,
organizations who can keep their eye on the ball will reap better returns in terms of long-term business
Reena Wahi is Managing Consultant and Head of Reward Strategy at Hay Group. Simran Oberoi is Asia Pacific
Chemical Sector Leader at Hay Group.