The phrase “pay attention” is both a topic title and an imperative exhortation. Regular readers of this site must pay attention to the attention being focused on pay transparency. It is vital for self-defense and survival. Casual visitors to our discussion forum might actually have a better understanding of the problem. Compensation professionals could be too close to the situation to consider it objectively, to see it in perspective or to view the challenge as it appears to the average citizen.
Journalists and broadcast commentators will eventually cease whipping top executives with repetitive “say on pay” stories. When the public reaction becomes a yawn, they will seek new game. Pay transparency is a broader topic that allows controversy hunters to shift their cross-hairs to a new target where exciting stories can attract a much larger audience. There are relatively few CEOs around whose excessive compensation inspires a gag reflex, but there are millions of workers who know very little about how their own pay is set. Not that many people have a personal interest in what top executives make. On the other hand, every working person cares deeply about what they earn themselves. And they care about what their family members earn. That makes a large potential audience for tales of pay inconsistency, unfairness, inequities, confusion and even malfeasance that will resonate with far more people. And we know those stories exist.
Reporters foment dissension and thrive on "shocking revelations." Both mainstream media and special interest groups require interesting stories for their audiences, so they are strongly motivated to dig for examples that stir up passions. Polemicists desperately seek outrageous headlines that attract notoriety. Posturing, exaggeration and slanted argument has replaced factual balanced presentation in almost all media, because no one gets excited about boring things. Pay is a topic that meets their needs.
The trend towards pay transparency will persist and continue to expand for a variety of reasons. Executive compensation excess is a handy club with which unions continue to pound employers as they desperately agitate for survival. But CEO greed is a hoary old story retold every year. Reporters crave new meat. A relatively few juicy tales about a tiny percentage of top executives already attract media interest for attention-catching sound bites. Imagine how they will feast on the many more anomalies discoverable in rank and file payrolls!
As newspeople intensify their search for scandalous stories about wages and salaries, we here are already fully aware that there are lots of potentially embarassing examples in virtually every enterprise. Transparency, whether voluntary or forced, will reveal what has been hidden. What are we doing about it? We know that the subject of pay deserves special careful treatment by human resources staffers and total rewards specialists.
If we don’t pay attention to what is said about pay, any intensified examination of how we handle pay will certainly create confrontations. Exposure of problematic decisions may generate negative attacks on our profession. Keeping silent while being assailed in public is not a very effective public relations tactic. Pointing the finger at top management won’t work, either, because compensation experts are charged with the responsibility to provide authoratative advice on implementation tactics. Challenges will require responses.
The cameras and microphones are coming. Are you prepared for the call of “action!"?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. After over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review and will express his opinion on almost anything.
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