Pay tops employee wish lists (again)

June 3, 2014, 3:27 PM UTC
Photo courtesy: Joel Sartore Getty Images/National Geographic RF

If you’re a manager who’s hearing more requests for raises lately, you’re not the only one.

When the Society for Human Resource Management did its latest annual survey on job satisfaction, the researchers got a surprise: 96% of employees rated compensation “important” or “very important,” making pay the No. 1 factor in overall job satisfaction. Money beat out “job security” and “opportunities to use skills/abilities,” both of which outranked pay during the downturn.

“Incomes have grown slowly during the recession, and that undoubtedly is having an impact on workers’ priorities,” notes Evren Esen, director of SHRM’s research center.

Those priorities, similar to SHRM poll results from before the downturn, are remarkably consistent across age groups, the report says. Four generations of workers—millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and veterans (those born before 1945)—all ranked pay either first or second in importance. So did almost every category of worker, including hourly, professional, and middle management. The only people who didn’t mention money were senior executives, perhaps because many were getting decent raises even when the economy was in the tank.

The study pinpoints two sore spots for workers who haven’t seen a salary increase in a while. One is “being paid competitively with the local market.” Well over one in three survey respondents (43%) said they aren’t. Then there’s variable pay, including performance bonuses and “monetary rewards for ideas or suggestions.” More than half (55%) reported being dissatisfied with how their employers handle this.

So, what can a manager do if the budget for handing out financial rewards is still tiny, recovery or no? Talking about benefits might help. After disappearing from the top five contributors to job satisfaction in SHRM’s previous two surveys, benefits jumped to fourth place this year.

“Often, the manager-employee conversation is only about pay,” observes Alex Alonzo, SHRM’s vice president of research. At companies where salary budgets are still not growing much, he says, “employers might want to emphasize overall benefits packages—including health care, retirement savings, and paid time off—as a way to help them retain skilled workers.”