Reimagining Compensation: It’s Time to Stop Building on Inequities of the Past (Part 2)

December 11, 2019

This blog is a continuation of  Reimagining Compensation: It’s Time to Stop Building on Inequities of the Past. Read the first part of the blog here. Both of these blogs are part of our longer series about living into values of justice and equity at CompassPoint. Read the other blogs in this series here.   

Leafs Emerging
Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán sourced from Pexels.Com

by Shannon Ellis

The work of reimagining our compensation system, like much of our work at CompassPoint, was stewarded by several teams with a mix of identities, positional power, perspectives on our work, and tenure in the organization. The work of re-designing the system involved and held accountable the people with formal human resource and financial management responsibilities but also deeply involved new teams with a variety of perspectives. Structuring the work this way, intentionally including others who had not been part of this process before, was an important step in becoming more transparent and opening access to information and decision-making around staff salaries.

The first year of the work to remagine compensation was spent gathering information and perspectives from other organizations who had implemented changes to their compensation, naming and acknowledging some of the specific areas that needed to be addressed at CompassPoint, and developing a set of recommendations for the changes we needed to make and how to prioritize them. Over the next two years, we made shifts to three primary areas of our overall compensation approach:

  • updating our systems to reflect new values, 
  • simplifying the career framework
  • making the pay gap smaller
  • restructuring how compensation decisions are made

Updating our tools and process to better reflect our values

The first stage was to determine and be explicit about what we truly valued in the work, especially as the nature of our work and focus of our impact were shifting. For us, this resulted in the creation of a self-reflection tool that asked all staff members to reflect on and rate their contributions along a common set of four questions:

  1. To what degree do your life experiences (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, life circumstances) inform your work and the work of CompassPoint?
    Among other things, this was an attempt to address the additional emotional labor (read more about emotional labor here and here), which often falls most heavily on women of color—and Black women in particular—required to do intersectional justice work, and start to compensate it.

  2. What is the quality and impact of the relationships you are holding in service of our work?
    This question emphasized our understanding of the importance of building lasting, transformational relationships as an essential fabric woven into the work of justice and liberation. This was asking us to reflect on the depth of our relationships—both internally with each other, and externally with our participants, partners, and even vendors—and their potential to transform ourselves and others.

  3. How are you most frequently contributing to our work?
    For this question, we reflected on a scale from “executing” to “adapting” to “innovating,” reflecting our value of radical imagination and the need to be creative and take risks in our work toward liberation. While all three of these areas of work are important and need to co-exist in any organization (and often in each person!), we included this measure knowing that moving from clear execution based on known systems to contributing in ways that require innovation and creative risk-taking often increased the amount of personal energy and commitment people needed to bring to the work.

  4. What roles do you typically play on teams?
    This was possibly the most traditional measure we included on the tool - from “contributor” to “active designer” to “holding the big picture”—as an attempt to recognize and value the need for taking on expanding degrees of (sometimes very personal) risk and responsibility in the work.

As significant as what was included in the tool, however, is what was not included. We did not include things that had previously been (either implicitly or explicitly) valued at CompassPoint, such as formal education, years of experience, specialized knowledge, or success in generating revenue. Folks who had previously calibrated their success on these measures were tasked to reflect differently on their contributions, and those who may have previously gone unseen had a formal place to acknowledge the value of their contributions. 

There are two other values underlie this tool that I think are important to lift up. One is the value of self-determination, honoring people’s innate ability to reflect clearly and honestly on their own contribution in relation to a collective commitment. These self-reflections were not done in isolation, but they were grounded in an assumption that people can and should have a direct voice in shaping how their contributions are seen and acknowledged in an organization.

The second value embedded in this design is that regardless of position or functional role in the organization, we all assessed ourselves on the same four criteria. This was an attempt to begin to break through entrenched—and often gendered and racialized—patterns of valuing programmatic work over operational, management work over “frontline,” external-facing work over internal. 

Completion of this self-reflection tool was supported by each person’s “practice partner,” who coached and supported the reflection and helped the person acknowledge accomplishments and challenge assumptions. At CompassPoint, practice partners are not supervisors in the traditional sense, but rather serve as a tether and guide to support people in navigating an organization with a distributed leadership structure. Each person was encouraged, but not required, to seek feedback from others who they worked closely with, so that they could integrate those perspectives as part of their self-reflection.

The next step with this tool was to share it in person with the Director of Operations (playing the role of ‘Compensation Listener’) who held formal human resource and financial management roles in the organization at that time. This was a meeting between the staff person, their practice partner, and the Director of Operations where her role was to listen, acknowledge, and more deeply understand the person’s perspective on their contributions along this set of values.  For many of us, the act of having our contributions heard and acknowledged outside of an isolated supervisory relationship was a step toward greater transparency and openness in the system. 

Simplifying the salary structure and making the pay gap smaller

While this process of supported self-reflection was underway, we also needed to revisit our current salary ranges for different positions and reset those to align with our values as well. Immediately raising our lowest salary to $50K and committing to no more than a 3:1 ratio of highest to lowest paid was only a first step of this work. 

At this point, we had fully transparent salary ranges for each job family at CompassPoint but it was not clear how people got placed within those ranges. These are often small, sometimes sporadically made, decisions that can accumulate and grow into larger inequities over time. At the time, we had six job families defined, from Project Assistant to Executive, with a career framework that described the competencies required for these positions when they were primarily program-facing but did not offer clear guidance to staff who were in operational and internal-facing roles. Part of the work to simplify this structure involved flattening it and defining four clear job families (Coordinator, Associate, Director, Executive) applicable to every job at CompassPoint across functional areas. 

The second part of the work was to determine clear base salaries for each job family and no longer allow people to be placed sporadically within these ranges, but to be assigned clearly to one of these base salaries. For us, that resulted in eight base salaries that are known across the organization ($50K, $60K, $65K, $80K, $85K, $100K, $115K, and $130K). The work of resetting our compensation (based on the decisions made by a peer-based team called the Equity Panel) involved assigning every staff person in the organization to one of these salaries, grounded in a new career framework that identified the increasing level of responsibility in each job family and the results of the self-reflection questions above.

Clearly, the jumps between some of these salaries are significant and reflect meaningful changes in people’s contributions. These shifts don’t happen every year. Because part of our commitment from the beginning was to acknowledge that keeping pace with the cost of living is a value, we also committed to annual COLA (cost of living adjustments) increases based on the consumer price index for our area and adopted a salary cap for each job family band.


Challenging Inequities in Our Approach to Benefits

Finally, we wanted to build in some flexibility in our compensation overall and acknowledged that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to our benefits package was another source of inequity in our system. We had long committed to a 4% employer match on our 401K, which some employees were able to take advantage of, and others not. If, due to salary levels and/or other commitments drawing on a person’s income, a staff person could not contribute 4% of their salary into retirement savings, they were leaving resources that CompassPoint had committed to on the table. In the process of our reimagination, we decided to make this 4% salary available in multiple ways to meet people’s different needs—people could still choose to have it contributed to their retirement accounts, but folks could also use it to contribute directly to their medical or dependent care accounts (Flexible Spending Accounts) above their pre-tax limit, or take it as additional cash payout to support student loan payments, to offset what they paid for dependent health coverage, or a variety of other needs.

Shifting How Compensation Decisions Were Made

A central element of working toward equity is reflecting continually on the questions of power and decision making, who decides and how? In most nonprofits, decisions about salary are closely guarded by a few people with positional authority. In our efforts to radically reimagine our compensation system, we disrupted many of these assumptions and put a peer-based Equity Panel at the center of the process, vesting them with full authority over final compensation decisions. 

This team was charged with reviewing all of the self-reflection tools, looking for patterns across the set and identifying possible places where people were over- or under-valuing their contributions in relation to their peers. They were working within the defined pay scale that had been developed by those with formal management roles and more direct connection to stewarding the business model, but none of the people on the Equity Panel had director—or executive—level responsibility in HR or finance.

While the staff members on the Equity Panel were taking on the weight of the responsibility for making salary decisions, those of us in formal management roles had a different kind of work to do. Most of us who held formal management roles during this process were white women in our forties with unique, but not completely dissimilar, stories of how we came to be in the organizational roles. We all had experience with the weight and sense of responsibility that comes with stepping into formal accountability for long-term stewardship of an organization, its overall purpose, and its people, and had directly faced the complexity that we often have to grapple with as we do our best to guide the work of an organization over the long haul. We shared a commitment to democratizing this information and process, even as we grappled with the different perspectives and approaches among us.

The most challenging part of this process for me, of holding organizational management accountability while meaningfully interacting with and supporting the work of the Equity Panel, was actually not in letting go of decision making power. Honestly, it felt more like a relief to not have to hold the responsibility for salary decisions within an isolated management team and open those deliberations up to new perspectives and ways of thinking. The harder part for me was holding onto and still honoring (but not over-emphasizing) my perspective from an executive role -- specifically, a unique view on the whole, and a focus on longer-term organizational sustainability. This perspective can often come into conflict with the immediate day-to-day needs of individuals and teams. In this process, those of us in an executive role had to find a balance between sharing our perspectives when we saw blind spots that the Equity Panel wasn’t seeing —including the setting of their own salaries—while fully honoring the complete decision-making authority that had been invested in the panel.

What’s Your Compensation Story?

So that’s our compensation story (for now because this work takes constant tending)—what’s yours? As with all of these blogs in our series about operationalizing equity at CompassPoint, this approach isn’t meant to be a prescription or road map. Our organizations are radically different. Some of us could go through a process like this and land on a completely flat or need-based pay structure, for example. Others may be working with constraints that only let us focus on more flexibility with benefits. But there is room for all of us to ask: 

  • Are your compensation systems reflecting your values as well as they could?
  • What is named as valuable throughout your career framework? How can folks get more transparency and clarity about how to move through it?
  • Whose work (and what kind of work) is invisibilized? How can you formalize recognizing it (not just through words, but through compensation?)
  • And most importantly—who is making decisions and what perspectives are missing?

On that last point, one of the biggest bright spots of the entire process, and what really helped us distribute decision making and interrupt old habits in a meaningful way, was the decision to create an Equity Panel to address that very question. You can read more about how that team worked here. 

Read the other blogs in this series: 

  1. Putting Racial Justice at the Center: How Did CompassPoint Get Here?
  2. A Vision for Belonging
  3. We Can't Work Toward Racial Justice Without Working On Relationships
  4. Reimagining Compensation: It's Time to Stop Building On Inequities of the Past (Part 1)
  5. Reimagining Compensation Decisions Through an Equity Panel



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