Employers Worry About Pay-Ratio Perceptions

Results of a recent poll by New York-based Towers Watson show it’s not the mechanics of complying with the new CEO pay-ratio-101366398 -- money on scaledisclosure rule — such as data gathering, getting the right sampling, identifying the median employee and the like — that worries employers the most.

It’s how they’re going to explain the pay-setting process to their employees and how their pay ratio will look compared to other companies’ ratios. This according to the almost 600 corporate compensation professionals who weighed in on the Towers Watson Webcast Poll on CEO Pay Ratio Disclosure Rule.

The communication issues loom especially large. Half the respondents cite that issue among their top concerns. Also, how employees will react when they start comparing their compensation to their CEO’s and to the median employees’ is keeping many a top business leader up at night.

For a refresher, this New York Times piece offers some pretty complete details, history and analysis of the 3-to-2 vote on Aug. 5 by the Securities and Exchange Commission that will require most public companies, starting in 2017, to regularly reveal the ratio of their chief executive’s pay to that of employees.

Some of the controversy is also spelled out in the piece:

“Representatives of corporations were quick to assail the new rule … saying that it was misleading, costly to put into practice and intended to shame companies into paying executives less.

“But the ratio, cropping up every year in audited financial statements, could stoke and perhaps even inform a debate over income inequality that has intensified in recent years as the wages of top earners have grown far more quickly than anyone else’s.”

What’s disconcerting at this point isn’t just how this ratio will be perceived, but how few employers really know what they need to do to comply. In the poll mentioned above, only 17 percent of employers agree they understand all of the costs, effort and data that will be needed while almost two-thirds (65 percent) disagree.

In an earlier Towers Watson survey of 170 U.S. compensation professionals, Towers Watson Talent Management and Rewards Pulse Survey, only 48 percent agree that their companies had identified the data they’ll need and know how they will capture it to calculate the pay ratio, while even fewer (41 percent) say they’re prepared for how the disclosure will affect employee perceptions of their pay.

And if you think time is on your side and you’ll get it right with many months to spare, think again, says Steve Seelig, senior regulatory adviser for executive compensation at Towers Watson.

It’s “not too early for HR to begin thinking about how well its company communicates with employees, and to then set a strategy for improving its message,” he says, adding to:

“Keep in mind that, when the disclosure comes out, workers below the median will [immediately start to] wonder what it takes to get them to that level, and why their company is not paying them more. Those employees at or above the median will naturally wonder whether their pay levels are determined fairly, or how the level of CEO pay might be hindering their pay increases. Workers also will be looking at companies across the street and pondering if their median pay is higher, and whether it might be a good idea to look around.

“Human resource executives should [be proactive and] view the pay ratio disclosure as a chance to make sure their employees understand [their company’s] pay-value proposition. Companies that get this communication effort right will find they actually have strengthened their relationship with the workforce, with better productivity and reduced turnover as likely outcomes.”

Those that don’t get it right shouldn’t be surprised when the opposite occurs.