What Are the Challenges With Performance-Based Compensation Systems?

What Are the Challenges With Performance-Based Compensation Systems?

Performance-based compensation systems come with their unique set of challenges. From CEOs to Vice Presidents, we’ve gathered the top four expert insights. They delve into issues from addressing bell-curve evaluation flaws to balancing metrics with industry dynamics.

  • Addressing Bell-Curve Evaluation Flaws
  • Navigate External Economic Factors
  • Define Clear Performance Metrics
  • Balance Metrics with Industry Dynamics

Addressing Bell-Curve Evaluation Flaws

Implementing performance-based compensation systems often encounters significant obstacles, particularly due to the reliance on traditional performance review models. These models, frequently resembling a bell curve, can inadvertently distort the true contribution of employees to the company. My experience has shown that this outdated approach often leads to inflated review scores, disconnecting compensation from actual impact. The bell-curve model tends to cluster a majority of employees into a ‘meets expectations’ category, making it challenging to differentiate truly exceptional performance from the average. When compensation is directly tied to these skewed evaluations, it results in an unsustainable financial model where average performance is rewarded at the expense of recognizing and incentivizing genuine high achievers. This creates a financial bloat within the organization, as resources are misallocated towards maintaining mediocrity rather than fostering excellence and driving company growth.

Brett UngashickBrett Ungashick
CEO & CHRO, OutSail


Navigate External Economic Factors

Implementing a performance-based compensation system presents notable hurdles, especially when economic circumstances outside the control of both the employee and the business come into play. One such challenge is inflation. In a performance-based system, a top performer may earn a generous merit raise but still find their compensation failing to keep up with the rising cost of living and essentials such as food, rent, fuel, and health insurance. Other external challenges such as industry downturns or pressures from equity investors and shareholders to return profit and dividends can significantly impact a company’s financial position and impact the ability to adequately reward exceptional performers.

To effectively navigate these challenges, transparency is key. When setting compensation within a performance-based system, it’s crucial to be clear about the methodology employed. By openly discussing how raises are determined, considering factors such as market rates, cost of living adjustments, company financials, and individual merit, HR practitioners can help employees better understand which factors are within an employee’s control, based on their performance, and which factors are external and beyond their influence. By acknowledging these challenges and openly communicating the rationale behind compensation decisions, HR practitioners can help maintain employee engagement and satisfaction within performance-based systems, even in turbulent economic times.

Amy HollanAmy Hollan
Principal, Hollan Group


Define Clear Performance Metrics

One of the challenges in implementing performance-based compensation systems is the poor definition of performance. Companies need to think thoughtfully about whether performance metrics are clearly defined for all departments and levels.

Danielle LittleDanielle Little
Director, Process Change, Peoplism


Balance Metrics with Industry Dynamics

In an industry as dynamic as ours, where market conditions, consumer preferences, and technological advancements can drastically shift the landscape, setting fair and attainable metrics that accurately reflect individual performance and contributions becomes a delicate balancing act. The risk lies in oversimplifying or generalizing performance indicators without considering the unique roles, market segments, or external factors that might affect outcomes.

Sales roles might be evaluated based on revenue targets, but how do we account for the quality of customer relationships built or the strategic market insights gained, which may not immediately translate into sales but are invaluable for long-term success?

Similarly, for roles focused on innovation or product development, the time frame to see tangible results can be extended, making short-term performance assessments challenging.

To address this challenge, we’ve adopted a more holistic approach to performance-based compensation, combining quantitative metrics with qualitative assessments of contributions, such as teamwork, innovation, and leadership qualities. This requires regular calibration meetings with department leaders to ensure alignment and fairness in the evaluation process and to adjust the metrics as necessary to reflect the evolving industry landscape.

Laurie HyllbergLaurie Hyllberg
Vice President, Kinsa Group


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