Think Outside the Box
A Periodic Challenge: New Mindset, New Results

A Cost-of-Labor Portfolio

“What is our average compa-ratio Jim?” asked the CEO as I sat down to report on our annual focal exercise.

Having been through enough of these meetings over the years, of course I had the answer; as a matter of fact, I had it calculated not only for the whole company, but for each division, each country and each corporate function. But I didn’t want to just spout off the answer, I wanted to educate him about how to think differently about his labor costs. Unfortunately, he had worked with enough compensation professionals over his storied career and had been taught by each and every one that if he could just get the compa-ratio to 1.0, another year could be put in the books.

“We ended at 0.99,” I said, “but what I really wanted to review with you was…”

“That’s great Jim, and tell your team that Jerry thinks they did a grrreat job! Could you ask Kathy to come in here on your way out?”

I shook my head again as I headed for the door. Not only because he still referred to himself in the third person, but again I was not getting the sort of traction that would really make a difference in the company’s performance. I mumbled to myself, “Yes Jerry, it’s just wonderful to know that all your averages are aligned. In addition, do you know you have 20% more Senior Professionals than your competitors? Do you know that when it all adds up our labor costs are 4.5% more than your competitors, and on a $200M payroll, that’s $8M, or about $0.05 per share?”

As the aisle row occupants of cubeville stared at me talking to myself again, I decided I needed a better approach than expecting the CEO to just nod his head and hang on my every word. What I needed was a few more people with some time and some skin in the game in order to make the difference bottoms-up rather than top-down. I needed people with shortages of resources to get their jobs done. I needed Human Resources.

Even then it was a hard sell. I had a solution looking for a problem. I finally found an ally in the HR Director of the Technical Services organization, a group that was in the process of trying to manage global labor costs through a planned migration to lower cost-of-labor markets and away from some of our higher-cost US urban locations.

It didn’t take long for her to get it – it seemed she was “high-potential” after all. Her organization’s costs and associated factors looked something like this, with these assumptions:

  • Our average wages were the same as the market at each job family level
  • Our benefits were equal to the market, 35% of base pay
  • Our incentive targets were competitive and identical to the market

The difference in how we’d looked at this in the past was taking off the “Jerry Glasses” and looking at the data in a whole different way – our total labor costs, not just our average labor costs… our “Portfolio” of employees. You see, you have choices in how you manage the decisions around factors and variables that make up your labor costs, even while maintaining the typical “50th percentile” strategies that so many companies employ.

Graphs

So even though we’re matching the market in all the traditional senses we’ve become accustomed to, we’re still exceeding the overall market cost-of-labor by 4.5%, or with this example the sum of $13,000,000!! Would that make a difference anywhere in your business – hiring more skilled technicians, sales people, funding a new product line, avoiding layoffs… you fill in an example.

How does this happen? Here are a few things to check for after you’ve done an analysis like this:

  • What is your promotion policy and practice? At Our Co, we enabled a process that says that people can come to expect promotions when they are high performers. Nothing really wrong with that on the surface, but it got away from us, and we didn’t take into account how many people we already had doing work at senior levels. We probably should have thought about more rapid promotions for employees hired at lower levels and slower rates for higher leveled employees.
  • We’ve had a few difficult years on the merit budget, so pay increases have been hard to come by. But when a new employee is hired, they can be hired at pretty much whatever level the manager wants. Our managers started over-hiring levels because they didn’t expect they’d be able to give pay increases. We’ve got a lot of competitively paid but underskilled people as a result.
  • We’ve ruled out the geographic labor cost issues – we know that the cost of labor is higher in places like the Bay Area, so that’s not a factor here.
  • Obviously we also discovered a few more dollars hiding from us, since incentives and benefits are a factor of base. Never forget that, as a business it’s all about fully-loaded labor costs.
  • One thing we did do right was we “gated” movement into the P5 or expert level of the job family. That means it requires additional approval to promote or hire someone there. It is more administration, but at that level the responsibilities are so much greater and implications of misplacement are of greater consequence so it’s worth it.

What can HR do with data like this? Thinking first of a popular topic, how about an element of workforce planning, as in an overlay around labor cost? How about coming to the table with a proposal to reduce labor costs over time by realigning skill requirements and leveling? Obviously there are many other aspects of workforce planning to consider, but armed with cost-of-labor data, a smart HR Director can create hiring plans around needed skills and determine whether training and development may enable business needs rather than taking an expensive hiring or replacement route.

Data can be intimidating, or at least that’s what people tell me when I ask why they never got into compensation. But almost anyone can see the clear benefits that present themselves when looking at data differently than the way we’ve been training everyone else to do so for so many years.

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