Solving the Puzzle of Compensation Plans and Diversity

November 6th, 2018

compensation-11-6-18.pngThere are some tasks that seem innocuous and administrative, but are nevertheless incredibly important. Assembling the puzzle pieces of effective executive and employee compensation plans is one such task.

This is why hundreds of bank executives and directors have assembled at Bank Director’s 2018 Bank Compensation and Talent Conference in Dallas, Texas, this week.

A number of themes began to emerge on the first day of the annual event, hosted at the Four Seasons Resort and Club at Las Colinas, the first of which is that many banks and their boards are still fully figuring out exactly how to structure executive and employee pay.

The starting point, according to a panel of experts from Compensation Advisory Partners and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP during a morning workshop, is the interagency guidance issued in 2009 by the Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

There are three overarching principles:

  • Provide employees incentives that appropriately balance risk and reward.
  • Be compatible with effective controls and risk-management.
  • Be supported by strong corporate governance, including active and effective oversight by the organization’s board of directors.

These may seem simple in theory, but the challenges for banks are real and complicated, which explains why compensation plans at so many banks are still a work in process.

On one hand, banks face one of the most competitive labor markets in decades, with the lowest unemployment rate in half a century. To attract talented workers, banks have to pay accordingly, which is why so many bankers raised their hands during a Monday morning workshop when asked if their banks boosted their minimum wages after tax reform passed Congress late last year.

On the other hand, as Steve Hovde, chairman and CEO of Hovde Group LLC, pointed out in his analysis of the industry, banks are facing well-seasoned business and credit cycles. This creates a quandary about how aggressive a bank should be in incenting rapid growth, as loans made at the top of an up cycle tend to be the first to go sour at the bottom of the next down cycle.

Moreover, while this may seem counterintuitive, there was wide agreement among attendees at the workshop that regulators aren’t currently focused on the design of compensation plans. The sole exception, according to at least one attendee, concerns how mortgage originators are being compensated, likely a reaction to the issues that surfaced two years ago at Wells Fargo & Co.

Another theme to emerge during the workshop involved diversity and inclusion initiatives, which all banks seem focused on addressing.

It’s important to distinguish between those two initiatives, observed one of the workshop’s panelists.

“Diversity is about inviting people to the party,” she noted. “Inclusion is about giving everyone an opportunity to dance.”

The challenge in banking, as in other industries, is tackling unconscious bias—social stereotypes people form outside their own conscious awareness.

No rational banker today would admit being biased against hiring or promoting women or minorities. Yet the demographic statistics in the industry speak clearly to a lack of diversity, especially at the upper levels of management.

One way to address this is simply through awareness. This was a point that Kate Quinn, the chief administrative officer of U.S. Bancorp, echoed two months ago at Bank Director’s Bank Board Training Forum in Chicago.

“Everyone has prejudices,” said Quinn at the time. “To address them, you first have to be aware they are there.”
And this isn’t just about hiring a diverse workforce; all employees must also be given an equal opportunity to excel. This is the distinction between diversity and inclusion in the corporate world.

An interesting point brought up during the workshop was that entry-level jobs throughout the financial industry tend to be fairly representative of the broader population. But as you look up the organizational chart, that diversity dissipates.

The lack of diversity at the top sends a strong signal, noted one attendee. Her point was, if, as a woman or minority, there isn’t someone like you on the board or who serves as an executive, then you are left with the impression you don’t have the same opportunity to advance.

Ultimately, though, if you listen to bankers, it’s clear that diversity and inclusion have become priorities at many institutions.
After all, to compete for talent, it’s not only how much you pay, it’s also the culture of your institution that will serve as a magnet for the next generation of employees.

jmaxfield

John J. Maxfield is the executive editor for Bank Director magazine.