Reconsidering Pay Strategy in the Wake of Inflation

Say goodbye to the Goldilocks economy, where moderate growth and low inflation sustained us for years. Our global economy and social norms have careened from crisis to crisis over the last 24 months. The world has faced down a pandemic, unprecedented restriction of interpersonal interactions, and disruption of worldwide supply chains. And yet the world economy is booming.

Opinions vary about the reality, root cause, and associated solutions for inflation and low unemployment. But what’s critical is that the growing expectation of future inflation is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that it stresses the systems for retaining and motivating employees.

Inflation simply is another type of disruption, albeit one that impacts companies and employees at nearly every level. Higher input costs lead to lower corporate margins. Higher costs of goods lead to lower individual savings rates (i.e., margins).

People costs are rising, too. Thinking about people cost as in investment allows strategic discussion about maximizing return. The good thing about people investments relative to say, commodity costs, is that cost levers are largely in corporate control and the tradeoffs can be managed. We view it as an imperative to consider changing pay strategy to reflect the reality of a world where the dollar does not go as far.

Companies and boards should think about how well pay strategy addresses four needs:

Need 1: Is our pay/reward strategy about more than dollars and cents?
Employees have far more choices for employment at this time and can command dollars from multiple places and roles. It is worthwhile to think hard about culture — what makes your culture unique, what people value in their roles, and what might be missing — and then build incentives and reward systems that support those activities in balance with financial performance.

Need 2: Does the pay strategy create the right balance of stability and risk?
Adapting pay programs to be more “risk-off” in the face of a highly uncertain external environment may be appropriate. Think about employees as managing to a “total risk” equation. When the expectation was that corporate growth was close to a given, then the risk meter could accommodate taking more risks to earn potentially more money.

Need 3: Are we making the best possible bets on our top talent?
Paradoxically, it might be a time to take more talent risk by digging deep to find your best people and providing them with differentiated rewards, visibility and responsibility. This is the heart of performance management, and it can always improve. The increased risk comes from investing more in fewer people. What if the assessment turns out to be incorrect or if someone leaves? Managing this risk versus avoiding it is the path to success.

Need 4: How are we sure performance in the face of a more volatile outside world is being rewarded?
This is the most “structural” of the needs. Elements to consider would include:

  • Higher merit budgets
  • More modest annual incentive upside and downside
  • Incorporation of relative measurement into incentive programs
  • Rationalization of equity participation and limitations to a smaller group as needed
  • Designation of equity awards based on overall dilution or shares awarded versus dollar amounts

Each of these needs has material tactical considerations that require much discussion about implementing, communicating and managing change. But unlike other major costs, rising people costs present an investment opportunity for increased returns rather than just a hit to the bottom line.