Monday 9 February 2009

HR in the spotlight: banking bonuses


   I suggested last September that HR, or at least HR practices, are in many ways behind the current crisis.  It was a relatively rare viewpoint at the time and the Bank of England was criticised for 'sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong', when it dared suggest bank's compensation schemes might be partly behind the situation.

No longer.  Compensation in financial services firms is now headline news.

Following Barack Obama's lead in capping bonus payments for banks receiving US government support, the UK government is also now seeking to impose pay restraints across large parts of the banking industry.

This isn't something that any of the UK's main political parties would have contemplated last September, but the public's revulsion of rewards for failure is so acute, it's no longer an issue that can be ignored.

Of course, the perception that the gap between rich and poor is too wide has been growing for some time.  But it's also clear now that the gap isn't just wide, it's also unjustified - and has been one of the major contributors to our current problems.  And it's not helped by John Thain spending $1.2m on his office renovations, including the famous $1,400 waste basket, as Merrill Lynch went to the wall.

Barclays, which is to pay bonuses of about £600m has been relatively unscathed, but then it has earned profits of close to £6bn and is cutting bonuses by 50-60% and has announced its own top-level review of its bonus structure.

RBS is going to have a much tougher week.  The UK's prime minister, Gordon Brown, has already said that he is “angry” that the part-nationalised bank, which has made a £28bn annual loss, is preparing to pay out £1bn in bonuses.

The bank argues that it needs to make these discretionary payments to retain its best staff.  In the main, this is a red herring - few other banks are recruiting, although there will always be a demand to talent, and Josef Ackermann at Deutsche Bank has noted, for example, that "talent will be happy to work for us".

The bank also has contractual obligations to pay some bonuses. However, it is possible to argue that the bank basically went out of business when it was taken over, and that without state funding employees wouldn't even have a job, never mind a bonus (see for example, former deputy prime minister, John Prescott's Facebook campaign).

Of course, most people still understand that an average bank teller has had little to do do with financial malpractices, and that therefore, they should still receive a bonus.  But bearing in mind the above points, these should probably be reduced.

We'll have to wait and see what happens... legal issues may yet stop the government from making any changes, although they may find a way to override these obligations.

But the bigger issue is how we ensure bonus schemes are better designed.  It's been announced that both Citigroup and UBS are writing clawback provisions into staff contracts so they can recoup large bonus payments if business performance suffers.  What? - how on earth weren't these provisions included before now?

HR should never have let this situation develop.  And it's not just an issue of compensation design.  Some banks have refused to see their people as purely money motivated, but most have simply accepted their people are only engaged by high rewards, have offered these rewards, and have continued to recruit people who are motivated in this way.

A few recent comments in the news help to show how accepting and reinforcing this link has led to a situation in which bankers see high reward as a right, regardless of their business' contribution:

  • On the BBC news: "I deserve my bonus - I've worked hard for it - after all, I only earn £95,000."
  • In the Sunday Times: a Morgan Stanley banker who last year was "paid a bonus of only £2m" now "feels unfairly treated as the bank makes across-the-board cuts, no matter how individual have performed... 'The contract has been broken,' he said".


I think these comments show how far bankers' perspectives have become divorced from the public's. 

John Hollon at Workforce Management sums the problem up well, discussing Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf's full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal:

"Regular Americans believe that Wall Street bankers are largely responsible for the financial mess the country is in right now. Whether that perception is right or wrong, Stumpf and his CEO friends need to buck up, shut up and be more sensitive to how their business practices might be perceived by the folks on Main Street. This is hardly the time to defend business as usual, no matter how legitimate it might ultimately be."


But it hasn't had to be like this - there is no real reason why bankers need to be paid more that other sectors of the economy.  Not all talented people are money motivated and it's a shame that none of the banks ever looked outside this one stream of employees (leaving aside for a minute the question of whether they really needed talented people anyway ie whether less talented people may have taken more acceptable risks?).

The key for me, as I've posted before, is the banks' cultures.  Financial services firms need to offer their people a broad and balanced (financial and non-financial) EVP based on a compelling purpose (mojo) which is supported through HR practices including leadership development and succession planning etc.

So, it's going to be another interesting week.  Tomorrow, former CEO of RBS, Fred Goodwin (who left the bank with a £8.4m pension pot) will be grilled by MPs on how he led the bank to the edge of collapse.

But given that these are HR issues in the spotlight, where is the HR response on this (from the CIPD, SHRM etc)?



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  1. Here's what Malcolm Gladwell thinks of 'talent, a critique with which I agree:

    And of course Deming demonstrated, using his Red Bead experiment, the influence of statistical variation in determining system outcomes. As you know, he was dead against performance-related pay.

    Here's Ben Goldacre talking about the Certainty of Chance, describing the Red Bead experiment in the process:

  2. Interesting on what you say regarding the so called Captains of Industry and how far they are removed from the man/woman (i.e. Taxpayer) in the street who is bailing out their sorry asses.

    Saw this interesting comment very appropriately headed - St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

  3. Bankers Bonuses

    Bonuses paid to bankers have attracted hysterical abuse not only by an aggrieved public but also by journalistic comments.

    Now let’s get real. bonuses. Big bonuses paid to directors and departmental heads should be forgone. The chiefs are at fault not the Indians as they are paid to carry out orders and deliver. They are incentivised to perform and over-perform and they of course should be rewarded. When I educate directors and managers on the subject of incentives and performance enhancement I start by laying the foundation “you will get more of whatever you reward and recognise” so be careful in what you do recognise and reward. If you reward or recognise long hours of work you will get people doing just that but not necessarily enhanced performance.

    A few years ago I was asked to sort out a problem with a major parcel carrier. They were experiencing a high level of customer complaint of non-delivery with too many parcels returned to the depots. A bright young executive put in an incentive programme for the drivers. If the parcels were not returned to the depot – the drivers earned more money. You can guess what happened - a good incentive but rewarding the wrong result

    This is exactly what has happened to the chiefs in the banking fraternity. The right incentive but for the wrong result. The vast majority of the Indians who have performed well and who have had little or no impact on the mess that the banks are now in should be getting their bonuses.

  4. Incentives in many of the banks are highly structured and transparent to those to whom they are awarded. Staff can calculate their expected bonus at the begining of the year and can see what they have to deliver (mainly in financial terms) during the year. This is the contractual bit - if they beat thier targets they get the bonus. This may lead to higher than acceptible risk taking as the targets are in-year and some of the trades / deals made can be much longer term. What is interesting is that it seems that no part of the bonus was held over into other years to be paid only if the cumulative performance is maintained. When I was developing a reward structure for a bank in the Middle East we were very careful to structure the bonus so as not to incentivize overly risky behaviour but the rewards were just a sizable in terms of % of base if not in absolute terms and we had hold over amounts going to 3 years post payout.

    Richard is right in arguing that the chiefs shoudl not be compensated as they were the ones leading the departments and managing the budgets etc but perhaps HR should take some responsibility on not standing up to the bankers and advising more robustly against some of these practices or is this a bit harsh as I can well appreciate the pressure the HR teams woudl have been under to deliver the reward to the high fliers after all if the individual made a profit of 30M why should he not get his 2M bonus?

  5. I can well appreciate the pressure the HR teams woudl have been under to deliver the reward to the high fliers after all if the individual made a profit of 30M why should he not get his 2M bonus?

  6. Thanks to you all for your comments. I agree our remedial actions should be focused on the chiefs not the Indians, and yes, I agree, Andy, that HR needs to take some responsibility too. And I don't think the pressure they were facing is a good enough excuse for not taking the appropriate actions that they needed to.

  7. I am reading Lou Dobbs "war on the middle class" which has given me a great insight into this economic problem. You have many great points here and I agree there is a quite bit of separation between the middle and rich in America. In regard to big bonuses, some have suggested that it is hush money! I don't think that is the case will all payments but it may be with some at AIG.


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