Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Most Important Employee Benefit

I started writing this blog back in the fall of 2010 -- about 7 years ago. How? Why?

One day, I was feeling really unhappy and I thought that writing would be a good way to take my mind off of my unhappiness. It turned out that it was. And, while I've been at it, nearly 500 posts and 200,000 hits later, I think I can say that there have been at least a few times that I have imparted some wisdom and some knowledge to at least a few people.

Along the way, there have been some side benefits as well. I've made a few LinkedIn contacts, gotten some Twitter followers, and even developed some business from my blogging. But, the biggest benefit of all has come every day.

What's that? Since the day that I made my first post, not a single day has gone by without at least one person asking me what is the single most important benefit to provide to employees.

That's pretty cool, isn't it? Actually, it would be if it were true. But, the fact is that I don't think that anyone has ever asked me that question. However, because I write this blog, I get to address that question now.

As I said, back in the fall of 2010, I was pretty unhappy at work. Before then, I had worked for a firm that I thought was great. We were creative. We were thinkers. We were innovators. We worked together. And, then we were sold. But, in the new firm, a lot of that remained -- not all of it, but a lot of it to the extent that we could figure out how to fit that culture in. And, then we were sold again.

And, it all went away. Every last drop of it went away, at least for me it did and based on conversations and behaviors, I feel pretty certain that many of my long-time colleagues felt the same way.

We'd lost our best benefit. And, that benefit could have been provided to us at no cost. That's sad, isn't it?

In fact, not only could that benefit have been provided to us at no cost, it would have produced large amounts of additional revenue for our employer or for any employer that chose to provide it to us.

If my cryptic ways have confused you here, you could be wondering. What benefit has no cost, but provides revenue to the employer providing it? It's not your health plan. It's not a 401(k) or a pension. It's not even vacation time or flex hours. But, as the way we work has moved from a 1980s environment when I entered this profession to a 2017 environment, this benefit has become even more important.

It causes people who receive it to work harder, to work smarter, and to work longer hours. It causes them to collaborate more. It causes them to give that extra little bit. It causes them to embrace the company brand even if they can't identify exactly what that brand is. And, it's far more important in 2017 than it was in 1985.

I think back to my work world in 1985. I arrived early. I could get breakfast in the office. I ate lunch with my colleagues. My employer provided that lunch. After lunch, we would all walk around the campus. Yes, it was a ritual and we all looked forward to those 5 or 10 minutes. And, then we would all go back to work and work hard.

Today, in 2017, those opportunities are largely gone. Many people don't work in the company office. They often work from home. Nobody provides them breakfast or lunch. They don't eat with their colleagues and they certainly don't walk with their colleagues. In many cases, other than via email, maybe telephone, and perhaps instant messaging and social media, they don't even know their colleagues.

That all makes one benefit harder to provide, but more important than ever.

Okay, for all those of you (maybe there are two or three who have gotten this far, but haven't figured out where I am going), that most important employee benefit is engagement. Yes, it's free to provide and, in fact, it's quite costly to not provide. But especially in 2017, it's not so easy.

How do we engage our employees in 2017? We have to make sure that they have interesting work. We have to make sure that they have a future. We have to take an interest in them. We have to show them a path forward. In short, we have to talk to them. And, far more important, we have to listen to them.

Listening to them doesn't mean that we do everything that they ask, but it does mean that we should think about what they say. The best idea may come from the recent college graduate who (paraphrasing the late Robert F. Kennedy) may choose not to ask why, but to ask why not. The solution may come from the analyst who is not burdened by rules that she hasn't learned yet, but finds an answer that we discover fits within those rules.

So, why am I writing about this now? This morning, I had two reasons. One is that I am very pleased to be employed by a firm called October Three that does seem to do a good job of engaging its employees. I find that I am working harder and I am working pretty intelligently. And, our employees from bottom to top are finding solutions for our clients that are creative and unique.

The second one is that next week, I will have the honor of becoming President of the Conference of Consulting Actuaries. The pay will be low (zero) and the hours will be longer than you might imagine, but if we get it right, the rewards will be significant. As the head of a membership organization that is voluntary for likely every one of its members, I want to engage that membership. In a perfect world, I'd like for every one of those members to feel like this is their organization. I want them to be part of the organization and to seek more and more ways to be part of it because I want them to be fully engaged.

Hopefully, I'll remember to practice what I preach.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Tax on CEO Pay Ratios That Are Too High

Back in 2010, stuck in Title IX of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, corporate America was blessed with a new requirement -- disclose the ratio of the annual total compensation of the CEO to that of the median-paid employee in the company. It seemed simple enough except that it's not. Here are some reasons:

  • Annual total compensation isn't what you think. It's compensation as defined for proxy purposes (Form DEF 14A) and it includes things like increases in value and retirement benefits as well as the value of certain stock compensation.
  • The median-compensated employee is the one who is compensated such that half the people in the company are better paid and the other half are not paid as well. So, to determine the median-compensated employee, you have to determine that half the company is paid higher and half is paid lower. (Yes, we can make some simplifying assumptions, but it's still not as simple as just picking a person.)
  • Foreign-domiciled employees count and we have to convert currency.
  • Part-timers and seasonal employees count and we are not allowed to annualize their pay.
All of this is so that a company can disclose a single number in its definitive proxy statement -- the ratio of pay of the CEO to that of the median employee.

And, then the pain ends, right?


People will see this number. Shareholders will see it, unions whose members the companies employ will see it, institutional investors will see it, shareholder advisory services will see it, and cities and states will see it.

Cities and states you say? Why would these issuers of proxies care about that?

Frankly, for most companies, the financial effects imposed by cities and states will be more of a nuisance than anything else, but Portland, Oregon led the way by imposing a surtax on companies doing business there if there pay ratio is too high. The business tax in Portland, generally, is 2.2% of income derived from Portland business. But, the following surtaxes will apply:

  • If a company's pay ratio is at least 100 to 1, but less than 250 to 1, there will be a 10% additional surtax;
  • If a company's pay ratio is at least 250 to 1, there will be a 25% additional surtax.
Other cities and several states have proposed similar laws and while some may have passed, I personally am not aware.

As I said, these taxes are not a big deal in the scope of the companies involved, at least not for the most part. At the same time, however, I think we are going to see that companies with pay ratios exceeding 100 are going to be quite common.

To the best of my knowledge, taxes of this sort were first proposed by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich in 2014. Secretary Reich points out that pay ratios in the early 70s averaged about 28, but we should note that statistic as being based almost entirely on full-time American workers. The labor force has changed. And, so has the pay ratio.