We’re Training Our Managers Wrong


“I don’t know why, HR wouldn’t let me.”

Anyone who’s heard me talk about manager communication knows that I’m passionate about getting rid of the above sentence and the sentiment that managers are neither able to understand nor be accountable for employee pay. Managers play this dual role in organizations:

  • They are employee advocates. Organizations expect managers to know what’s going on with the team and make sure they’re developing employees, helping them grow in the position and in the organization overall.
  • They are agents of the organization. They are responsible for communicating key information to employees and are expected to tow the party line for the organization, whether or not they had input into key decisions or agree with them.

Admittedly this can be an awkward spot to be in – be friendly but don’t be friends. Add to that the fact that our favorite millennial generation has been moving into management roles for the past few years, bringing their emphases on both sharing information and fairness. But as with every generation before them, millennials also were not born just naturally knowing how to manage. Managing teams is a learned skill.

And we don’t make it a whole lot easier for managers. We pretty much ask them to learn how to manage a team, give them limited resources, and then tie one hand behind their backs. We tell them they’re responsible for the engagement, development and performance of their team, but then we don’t allow them to control compensation for their employees or spend a ton of time teaching them to manage.

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Do You Have Faith in Your Managers?

Having recently put together PayScale’s 2017 Compensation Best Practices Report, I learned some alarming stats that tell a pretty tough story for our managers.

  • Only 11 percent strongly agree that employees have a great relationship with their direct managers
  • Just 17 percent strongly agree that there is frequent, two-way communication between managers and employees
  • A mere 19 percent were very confident in managers’ abilities to have tough pay conversations
  • And yet – 38 percent of managers are already communicating compensation to employees, and that number jumps to 53 percent among enterprise organizations
Only 11 percent strongly agree that employees have a great relationship with their direct managers.Click To Tweet

With such low confidence in manager abilities, I’d expect to see massive training programs in place. In fact, only 30 percent offer managers training about how to talk about compensation. It gets more interesting when we dig deeper, though. We asked that 30 percent who do offer training what types of training they offer. The answers helped me uncover why, despite the training, so many organizations still lack confidence in their managers.

This leads me to the title of this post – we’re training our managers wrong. The two most important trainings to offer managers, first time or seasoned, are the two least-offered training topics. It’s really hard to convincingly communicate information that you don’t fully understand. Not all managers say “go ask HR” because they don’t know the answer, sometimes they say it because they don’t understand the answer. Providing managers some knowledge of compensation basics is critical to the success of their communication.

The other, most important training topic is to guide managers through how to actually have specific compensation conversations. At PayScale, our professional services team provides manager training. By partnering with HR teams, we cover a bit of each topic, depending how transparent the organization chooses to be about their performance and the connections between compensation and culture. Every time we get to the part about how to have specific pay conversations, you can feel every manager scoot just a little bit closer to the phone.

Teaching Managers How to Talk About Pay

Talking about pay can be scary. For those conflict-avoiders out there, it is doubly scary because it’s hard to know in advance how an employee will react. Even good news can turn sideways in a conversation when not delivered right. And the first time a manager has a tricky pay conversation should not be live with an employee. Get managers together in groups and practice having these conversations. Have more seasoned managers share what’s worked well with newer managers. Give a prize to the manager willing to share the most awkward pay conversation they’ve had so you can collectively use it as an example to improve communication for the whole group.

Last thought on training managers and helping them to communicate better with employees: before you think I’m too wishy-washy, I very much believe in giving people information and then holding them accountable for it. Managers are in a tough spot as both advocates and agents, and that’s the job. That’s what managers agree to do when they agree to manage. Make sure the expectations of the role are clear, provide them with the resources to do it well, attach performance metrics to their ability to lead a team and then pay them for it when they do it well.

Eventually, we’ll turn “HR wouldn’t let me” into “I decided to do this and here’s why.”

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