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What I learned at the 2013 Total Rewards Conference

Mykkah Herner, MA, CCP, Senior Compensation Consultant at PayScaleI had the good fortune to attend the World at Work Total Rewards Conference last week. In addition to the great group of exhibitors, there to support compensation and HR professionals, there were also some stellar presentations that got me thinking. Here are the top four things that piqued my interest at the conference.

Mykkah Herner, MA, CCP, Senior Compensation Consultant at PayScale

I had the good fortune to attend the World at Work Total Rewards Conference last week. In addition to the great group of exhibitors, there to support compensation and HR professionals, there were also some stellar presentations that got me thinking. Here are the top four things that piqued my interest at the conference.

It’s a time of uncertainty
I knew this. But it was definitely a theme that permeated multiple presentations. I heard two key strategies for navigating this uncertainty, depending on the core issue for which they were solving.

  • In a presentation by Rodd Wagner at Bi Worldwide, the focus was on the uncertainty caused by the Great Recession (sic). After citing a number of stats about open jobs and unemployed workers, he suggested that one of the “New Rules of Engagement” is to “Make Them Fearless.” His point is that folks in the workforce are timidly trying to keep their jobs and that to launch organizations forward, we need to make employees fearless, even in the face of the Great Recession. I would extend this sense of fearlessness to execs making choices in the current economy. Be fearless and willing to hire the best candidates to fill open jobs.
  • In discussing the Affordable Care Act (ACA), Thomas Sondergeld at Walgreens emphasized the need to be flexible going forward in the coming years. Because there is so much uncertainty around exactly how the ACA will play out, companies need to have multiple compensation strategies, all able to be tweaked and implemented as needed in the years following 2014’s Play or Pay deadline.

Millennials are different… but the same
Rodd Wagner’s presentation on the New Rules of Engagement struck a pretty resonant chord for me. He started by saying that for the most part, Millennials may not be all that different from any generation entering the workforce in their early 20s. That said, he did point out some key, relevant, differences.

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  • Millennials blog, tweet, post, or otherwise share everything. This is true of something formerly thought of as private: salary information. This new generation in the workforce shares everything publicly, so pay practices need to be fair and transparent.
  • Millennials expect to be engaged. The concept that work can be boring because it’s meant to be work is a thing of the past. As a result, the total compensation package needs to take into account things like workplace culture and non-monetary perks.
  • Millennials are a bit nuts. Ok, those are my words not his. Rodd brought up the example that rather than going all out and running a 5k, Millennials are doing army-grade Tough Mudders – and then posting their pictures online. The same people who are swinging by a rope from the arches in Utah are in key positions in our organizations. They no longer want just a good job with good pay and good benefits, they want the extremes, and they want to brag about it. 

Planning for the Affordable Care Act is tricky
In a panel-style discussion, Jason Eliot (Integris Health), Thomas Sondergeld (Walgreens) and Jack Towarnicky (Willis North America) engaged the audience in a frank discussion of their fears and ideas around the Affordable Care Act. The premise they suggested was that the first few years of the ACA were spent on ensuring compliance. Now, by and large, companies are shifting to an assessment of the costs and budgets surrounding the change.

  • One critical area is in Health Care where comp professionals are struggling to get their execs to turn their attention inward to realize that they need to address issues in their staffing models: what should be done with per diem employees? A similar question is occurring amongst universities who are trying to determine how to handle adjunct faculty positions.
  • In Retail and Food Service, the concern is around losing folks at the entry level who suddenly become eligible for benefits but don’t want them in exchange for suffering pay cuts to offset the costs of insurance.
  • Ultimately, the positive spin in the room was a realization that we’re talking about healthcare now. CEOs and other execs are asking about benefits and bringing HR and Comp professionals onto the agenda.

Pay-for-Performance is still critical… but folks are seeking alternative strategies
In an economy where money is tight and every dollar counts, companies are still invested in Pay-for-Performance (P4P). The sessions I attended didn’t seem to ask the question *if* but rather how can we do it better.

  • Focusing on the executive level, Brit Wittman (Intel) and Ron Battaro (Farient Advisors) addressed the need to balance out P4P with efforts around retention and motivation. In the case study they presented, the execs hadn’t received much in the way of pay increases over the past few years, and as such were losing motivation. I suspect this is true across many organizations where execs kept their own pay stagnant in order to keep the business from folding during the Great Recession. In revising their executive comp package, they suggested that when implementing new programs, depending on the organizational context, it may be necessary to tip more heavily towards retention/motivation efforts. Once the program gets going, and trust develops, the program can swing back towards a P4P-heavy goal that still factors in retention and motivation goals.
  • In another session, Karen Crandall from Expedia talked about how their company has done away with performance ratings altogether in an effort to develop new ways of managing performance. For them, manager training became central and the company spent 10 hours per manager to ensure that they understood the new performance process sans ratings, and also that they understood how to navigate the compensation process. During their trainings, they went as far as to role play having “the talk” with employees, getting feedback from their peers. Some managers reported that after seven years on the job, no one had ever given them that much information about the comp program. Essentially, the value of manager training is often underrated.

In all, it was a very engaging conference. The caliber of hallway conversations was high. The t-shirts were witty. And Philadelphia was a gracious host.


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