7 min read

All About The Benjamins

All About The Benjamins
All credit to New Line Cinema. Oh, and Ice Cube obviously.


I need it in order to survive. You probably do too.

It's not the entire reason I am gainfully employed, but it's a pretty strong contributing factor.

Sure, having a job provides me with regular challenges, the sense of accomplishment that comes with surmounting those challenges and generally keeps me from getting bored, but I suspect that I could get all of those things from other places if necessary.

When you exchange your mental or physical capacity for money, it's important to regularly ask whether of not you are receiving the appropriate remuneration for the value that you are delivering.

And the answer to that question changes more frequently than you think.

I Love You, But I Gotta Take You In

A salary that might have been perfectly appropriate last year, could be completely unacceptable this year. Sometimes that valuation can even change on a month-by-month basis.

The pandemic was an extreme example of this sort of value shift, where the balance of power in the technology industry shifted very much in favour of the worker. With such a shift comes an equivalent shift in valuation, with salaries rising as a result.

At least for people who are changing jobs.

The people who are hanging around at the same company commonly have a different experience. Typically, they are entirely dependent on some sort of regular salary review process, which is instigated and controlled by the company itself.

My last company was pretty bad at this. Salary reviews were both irregular and opaque, which is pretty much the worst combination I can imagine.

As a result, there were all sorts of negative effects like people feeling undervalued and high employee turnover, which led to knock-on effects like weak culture, low morale and difficulties delivering.

It rankled me in particular, not because I thought I was personally undervalued, but because it felt like the company was taking advantage of people and just generally being slack about things that should be important.

And I don't like that.

There's A Whole Lotta Money Out There

So, I resolved to change it.

Fundamentally it was a process problem, in that there wasn't one.

Or maybe there was and it was just completely opaque if you weren't participating directly in it.

I suspect there probably wasn't a well understood process, and that if there happened to be budget allocated to salary adjustments, the whole thing was just handled in an entirely ad-hoc fashion.

Creating and adhering to a transparent, easily understandable process seemed like a rational solution to that problem.

As for the process itself, I felt like something like this would work:

  • Once a quarter, everyone in the company receives a lightweight performance review, giving them a rating from 1-5
  • Once a year, the company decides if there is money available for salary adjustments. This is clearly communicated within a specific timeframe
  • Every single employee receives a yearly performance rating derived from the quarterly ratings
  • The yearly performance rating equates to a salary increase of some sort, with higher performance getting more of an increase
  • All salary adjustments must fit within the budget, so a forcing function is applied at the end to get as close to that budget as possible (either adjusting everyone down or up as appropriate)
  • All of the above is documented clearly and publicly and regularly referred to

The execution of said idea was a bit more challenging.

Who Do You Think I Am? Mel Gibson?

As I commonly do, I wrapped everything up into a project, which I called Less Sadness About Salary Reviews.

A solid name, if I do say so myself.

The first step was to gather a group of like-minded people together in order to help make this happen. It wasn't hard finding people who were interested, but it was pretty hard finding people who actually had time to dedicate to the project.

The second step was identifying some success criteria. You know, to ensure that what we did actually got some meaningful, measurable results.

The success criteria we settled on were as follows:

  • Overall approval of the salary and performance review process within the technology team, measured via survey, improves from <10% to 90%
  • The project team completes at least 3 simulated reviews each (either as reviewer or reviewee)
  • Employee happiness index within the technology team increases to 9
  • Exit interviews/one-on-ones for the technology team do not refer to salary reviews as a pain point anymore
  • 100% of technology team members receive a salary review within 4 months of the end of the next financial year
Looking back at the success criteria now I can definitely see room for improvement. Some of them are very hard to measure or feature incredibly sparse data points. Still, I think they encapsulate the general gist of the project; to increase employee happiness when it comes to money.

Moving on from setting the goals, actually drafting the salary review process and getting people to review and accept it was not overly difficult. There was plenty of engagement and we had lots of feedback and thoughts to work with from across all parts of the technology and executive teams.

It wasn't all that surprising. The bar was pretty low to begin with, and going from nothing to something is generally a fairly easy transition to make.

With the draft process agreed upon, it was time to actually kick off the quarterly performance reviews.

This was a lot harder than I expected it to be and involved a lot of hand-holding and cajoling in order to get it to happen reliably.

In fairness, it probably would have been better to establish some sort of regular feedback and review process first, as an independent project and to then use it as an input into a salary review process. Doing both at the same time was a bit much.

It also changed the tone of the performance reviews to be very focused on potential future financial gain instead of professional and personal growth, which I didn't like. Had I presented the performance reviews in isolation, they might have been more focused on the actual process of giving and receiving feedback.

The counterpoint is that people might have been less motivated to actually do them if there was no benefit other than growth.

With everything mostly up and running, the quarterly reviews happening regularly and processes in place to look at those review results in advance of the yearly salary review process, I considered the project to be well on its way to making a difference.

And the success criteria reinforced that, with solid improvements in confidence and metric scores across the board.

Green is good.

Considering that the actual salary review process had not been successfully executed by the end of the project, the improvements in satisfaction were clearly based off hope for the future.

Which is a powerful thing.

This Is It Man, Time To Go To Jail

Then I left that particular company, taking a voluntary redundancy to help the organisation dial back its wage related expenses.

It worked out amazingly for me, but I don't really know if the project delivered the desired results at the end of the day.

I doubt it played out the way I wanted it to.

There were two main areas of concern that I had.

The first was that the quarterly review process was not ingrained enough at the point where I left. Each cycle I had to spend a considerable amount of effort shepherding it, chasing people and cracking skulls in order to make sure that we would have the data that we needed at the end of the financial year.

In reality I probably could have made my job a lot easier by just saying something brutal like "A missing quarterly review will be treated as a rating of 0 for the final salary review calculations", but that seemed overly harsh. After all, I didn't just want the review process to be a box-checking exercise. I wanted it to be full of all sorts of useful reflective feedback.

The second area of concern was that the business would just drop the ball entirely on the most important part: actually deciding and announcing if there was a salary adjustment budget in a timely fashion. If that didn't happen, then the whole thing would go down in flames instantly, causing a significant amount of collateral damage to other things like morale and trust.

I should really follow up with the people I know that still work there to see what actually happened.

I know that the company is still around, though with significantly less people than they once had, so it would not surprise me if everything that I tried to put into place fell away in the resulting changes.

In fairness, for almost any company, it can be very hard to focus on the long-term positives of a reliable and transparent salary review process. The short-term negatives (higher salary costs) hurt when money is commonly tight and there might not even be a long-term.

It's short sighted and feels gross, but it makes sense in its own way.

That's No Forehead, That's A Five-Head

I think the whole concept of a regular and transparent salary review process ties in nicely with my general desire for truth, even if that truth ends up making things more painful or harder to deal with.

Such a process is a critical part of maintaining a healthy workforce, even if it does end up costing more money. It's especially important if you think you have top tier talent and want to retain them, because good people can easily find somewhere new to work.

And they will.

So, if you really want to have the best people and do the most awesome things, you should provide them an environment in which they are valued and appreciated.

Cold hard cash isn't the be-all and end-all of what a good person needs in order to do their best work.

But it certainly doesn't hurt.