Let's face it — end-of-year pay talks are painful

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Let’s face it, end-of-year compensation decisions are stressful. Even the most successful owners may lack the confidence needed to have meaningful discussions. Here’s a list of planning tips to improve employee pay meetings and ease the annual ritual.

Dust off your firm’s job descriptions and ensure you have a clear understanding of what your employees are responsible for accomplishing in their current roles. If you aren’t sure the job descriptions are current or you don’t have job descriptions, ask employees to describe their key responsibilities to you and the percentage of time spent doing each one.

Job descriptions are a critical tool in benchmarking roles and a standard to use to ensure you and your employees are on the same page when discussing end-of-year results and their corresponding compensation.

As a rule of thumb, base salary is paid for performing the duties in the job description, and bonuses or incentives are awarded for exceptional performance, such as completing stretch goals that go above and beyond the job description responsibilities.

Once you’ve reviewed job descriptions, review the firm’s results for the year, your organizational chart and employees. Who had the greatest impact on the firm and your clients overall? What key initiatives were implemented that increased client retention; brought in new clients and revenue; and increased productivity, advisor capacity and overall profitability?

The individuals or teams who are responsible should get the lion’s share of your compensation dollars.

Performance-based compensation communicates that the firm’s pay philosophy is based on meritocracy. Each person's performance is used to determine his or her compensation, potential promotions, ownership and partnership opportunities, and other perks and benefits.

Essentially, the better employees’ results are, the better their reward. Firms that spread their salary dollars like peanut butter to ensure everyone gets some increase (no matter how small) are not going to retain the best talent.

I continue to be surprised by how many firms use cost-of-living adjustments. This method makes no financial sense, but is commonly used to provide a marginal employee with a pay increase. This goes against a meritocracy culture. COLAs increase your fixed costs and are not tied to measurable results that have a positive impact on the firm.

The two main forces that should drive pay are market price — what the employee is worth in the market — and the internal value, meaning what the employee is worth to your actual firm. Increases to base salary are about recognizing changes in market price or an increase in the internal value of your employee.

Base salaries only go up. Once an increase is granted, the higher salary will be paid over and over for as long as the employee remains with the company. You should increase base salary only when the market and the performance of the employee support it.

Define a base-salary range for each position based on the value of the position to your firm and the market value of the position. Make sure to revisit the salary range regularly and adjust as needed with market changes.

Move an employee within the range as his or her job, responsibilities and skill sets change over time. Increasing an employee’s base salary because she has done an excellent job of meeting or exceeding her job objectives is a better bang for your buck than automatically raising your fixed costs by paying COLA.

Establishing market rates for core positions within your organization is important for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it guides decision making for pay, including hiring, promotions, internal equity salary adjustments and budget planning. Because labor costs are the largest expense for an organization, a solid understanding of the external value of each position allows you to develop an approach for setting overall compensation philosophy.

Compensation benchmarking provides the information needed to define the costs associated with salaries, bonuses and incentives, and total cash compensation. So, by matching your job descriptions with compensation data, you can get a clear comparison of your staffing expense and the market for similar roles in the advisory industry. Here is some advice to follow:

  • Start with the industry benchmark reports. Always compare job descriptions — never titles alone — when deciding whether a survey job is a good match to your roles. Titles vary widely from firm to firm in terms of scope, size and responsibility. 3
  • Read through the reports on the latest compensation trends. One recent study found that over the last two years the largest growth in compensation has been in the advisory ranks. Support advisors had an average increase of 13% in compensation, service advisors had a 14% increase and lead advisors had a 23% increase.

Make sure you are allocating compensation for hard-to-fill positions and those that have the highest turnover. The role that seems to be the hardest to fill is an experienced or lead advisor. Firms are taking a more strategic approach to filling the lead advisor role by bringing in junior talent and training or “growing their own” versus trying to recruit in the open market. Most firms I work with are skeptical that viable candidates are available and are concerned about making sure there is a good culture fit.

Additionally, turnover seems to be highest in the operations and staff functions. Most of my clients are finding it’s increasingly difficult to find candidates for their entry level operations and support roles like client service administrator or administration assistant. These roles also tend to have the highest turnover.

Keep in mind that if you are operating in a competitive geographical region like the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago and New York City, paying at the low end of the salary range guarantees turnover.

According to the 2017 FA Insights People and Pay study, 43% of firms pay revenue-generating roles discretionary bonuses and 56% of firms pay support roles discretionary bonuses.

Discretionary bonuses, which are generally paid without regard for any measurable criteria, are less effective in motivating behavior. These types of bonuses do not create a clear link between pay and performance, and can foster an entitlement mentality in employees. The continued widespread use of discretionary bonuses is troubling, and if you find yourself paying bonuses this way, consider moving to a performance-based incentive pay in 2018.

Rationalize the bonus, using such criteria as client retention; new clients; completion of marketing, technology, compliance, client service related projects; acquiring new skills; and attaining credentials, licenses or certifications. Once you begin to explain the basis of the monetary award to your employees, you will be setting clearer expectations about what it will take to earn additional compensation.

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Compensation Workers' compensation Recruiting Client acquisition Client retention Workforce management Employee turnover Employee benefits FA Insight