By Andy Klose - Associate Partner
In this series of articles, we would like to highlight an aspect of remuneration strategy that is often not given sufficient attention: The ratio of fixed and variable pay to total cash compensation (also known as "pay mix").
In today's fast-paced professional services landscape, the recruitment and retention of highly-skilled employees is paramount for success. However, not all companies can offer cash compensation packages that meet (or exceed) industry benchmarks, making the strategic design of pay structures increasingly important. This article explores the nuances of pay mix and its influence on a firm's capacity to both attract and retain top talent. Benchmarking percentiles are instrumental in guiding companies to align their compensation strategies with market realities. Through practical examples, we reveal how even minor alterations to remuneration structure can impact a company's competitiveness in the labour market.
In Part 1 of this series, we explained why the pay mix can be the defining differentiator, particularly from an employee’s perspective, when many of the other key elements of compensation across competing organisations are considered to be broadly similar. In Part 2 we discussed how pay mix affects the financials of firms, especially with regards to personnel costs. This Part 3 examines how pay mix should be adjusted in relation to the total cash compensation offered and how benchmarked market percentiles are the most effective indicator of competitive positioning. And, in the final Part 4 we will assess how pay mix may influence firms’ culture and performance.
As people are the key asset for professional services firms in particular, hiring the right people, motivating them to perform at their best and retaining top talent are critical to success.
Companies have different operational models, service different market segments or clients resulting in different economic realities. As a consequence, not all companies will be able to offer total cash compensation packages which are “in line” with the market (i.e. around the market’s median) or above to attract the best talent in the market.
Therefore, particularly for companies forced to offer total cash compensation below the market’s median it is crucial to get the pay-mix right. Understanding and utilizing percentiles in the benchmarking process can provide valuable insights into compensation competitiveness.
Total cash compensation in relation to fixed and variable pay
The following example (Exhibit 1) illustrates this: Assuming the following five offers relate to comparable positions with comparable future prospects and development opportunities, etc., offered by three comparable companies with similar brand, status, market and growth prospects, etc.:
In the example above, both Firm 1 and Firm 4 offer the lowest total cash compensation (90). On the contrary, Firm 3 and Firm 5 offer the highest total cash compensation (100). Firm 2’s offer (95) is in between the other four offers.
The key difference though lies in the pay mix, particularly when comparing offers amounting to the same total cash compensation:
When comparing Firm 1 and Firm 4: Both firms offer the same total cash compensation (90), but Firm 1 offers a higher base salary (70) and a lower variable pay (20) than Firm 4, which offers a lower base salary (60) and a higher variable pay (30). When comparing these two offers, obviously Firm 1’s offer is more attractive, because less money is “at risk”.
The second comparison refers to Firm 3 and Firm 5. Both firms offer the same total cash compensation (100), but Firm 3 offers a lower base salary (60) and a higher variable pay (40) than Firm 5, which offers a higher base salary (70) and a lower variable pay (20). When comparing these two offers, obviously Firm 5’s offer is more attractive, because less money is “at risk”.
But generally, Firm 4s offer is the least attractive from all five offers, since it offers the lowest total cash compensation (90) and the lowest base salary (60). Assuming full transparency in the market, Firm 4 would be having the most problems in attracting talent.
In contrast, Firm 5s offer is the most attractive from all five offers, since it offers the highest total cash compensation (100) and the highest base salary (70). On the other hand, one could argue whether Firm 5 is overpaying by offering both, the highest total cash compensation and a very comfortable pay mix (with relatively little money “at risk”).
Pay mix as a means of offering competitive compensation
In the next example (Exhibit 2) we will focus on the first three offers of Firms 1 to 3, which are more in line what one would consider a rational approach for adjusting pay mix according to the size of total cash compensation offered:
We already highlighted the inverse correlation between size of total cash compensation and ratio of fixed to variable compensation components (aka pay mix): Simplified one can say, the higher total cash compensation, the higher is also the variable pay in relation to base salary and total cash compensation (or in other words: the “riskier” is the pay mix).
Pay mix and market percentiles of different pay elements
Assuming that these offers match the market’s pay range as follows: Firm 1’s total cash compensation (90) matches the lower quartile (25th percentile) of the market’s range, Firm 2’s offer (95) matches the median (50th percentile), and Firm 3’s offer (100) matches the upper quartile (75th percentile).
Considering the market positioning with regards to total cash compensation, ideally the positioning with regards to base salary should be the other way around: Firm 1 should target a higher market percentile (e.g. the 75th percentile) for base salary, Firm 2 could be targeting the median (50th percentile), and Firm 3 could offer a slightly more “aggressive” pay mix by targeting a lower percentile (e.g. the 25th percentile) for base salary.
From our experience in benchmarking hundreds of consulting and professional services firms we see, that these relationships and ratios are often overlooked when designing compensation models.
In summary, not all firms can offer market-competitive total cash compensation packages, making it critical to optimise their pay mix. We illustrated how companies with similar total cash compensation packages can differ in their attractiveness to candidates due to differences in their pay mix. Companies with a higher base salary and lower variable pay may be more attractive because they involve less financial risk for employees. The pay mix should be adjusted in relation to the total cash compensation offered, with higher compensation typically having a larger variable component (and vice versa). Ideally, companies should aim to align base pay with market percentiles to effectively attract and retain top talent.
We are at your disposal for further questions and suggestions regarding how you optimally design the pay mix (and/or remuneration systems) for your company.
Andy Klose is an Associate Partner at Vencon Research International and heads the firm’s consulting unit.
Vencon Research International is a leading provider of compensation benchmarking and research as well as of compensation and performance-related consulting services for professional service firms, especially for audit and tax, management consulting, and IT services firms. Vencon Research International provides services to a full range of clients in more than 75 countries worldwide and is proud to name more than 85% of the world’s major consulting and/or professional services firm its clients.