Tag: Compensation Surveys

Salary Scales

A salary structure is essential in every organization. It is the single most important document in human resources. Build a salary scale and have a salary scale, why bother? It tells you everything you need to know about an organization:

  • How the organization positions itself in the market
  • The value the organization places on its jobs
  • How relationships across jobs are managed
  • Possible career progressions
  • And where the organization stands on equity and transparency

For an organization to work efficiently and achieve team cohesion, a well-balanced salary scale is crucial as it drives all other critical HR programs — everything from recruitment, staff retention, promotion, and ultimately career development.

Many organizations fail to realize the value of a salary scale. More than just pay ranges, a salary scale, when used correctly, can guide an organization to efficiently execute all its different HR functions and strategies, from managing compensation to managing its people.

Beginning with compensation, though, the fundamental purpose of a salary scale is to provide a framework for managing salaries. Setting competitive hiring rates that facilitate recruitment, establishing pay ranges that show value for experience, and defining the differences in pay from one job level to the next — all these need to be managed carefully to ensure that organizations are attracting and retaining the talent they need while maintaining team cohesion.

Of course, salary scales’ use extends beyond compensation. Learning and development milestones can be defined by the underlying job structure used to build the salary scale, which enables effective career pathing. Salary scales can also facilitate the mechanisms to reward employee development through recognition of skills growth. Finally, a well-designed salary scale demonstrates and promotes fairness and equity within the organization.

To develop salary scales to meet the unique requirements of your organization, you need to start by establishing your job structure, defining your compensation philosophy, and developing your scale design methodology.

This is the first of our blog series on “Building Your Salary Scale.” In our next post, we will be discussing how you can begin to develop your organization’s compensation philosophy and the different elements that need to be considered. Birches Group can help design a salary structure that meets your organization’s needs. Contact us to get started.


Bianca manages our Marketing Team in Manila. She crafts messaging around Community™ concepts and develops promotional campaigns answering why Community™ should be each organization’s preferred solution, focusing on its simplicity and integrated approach. She has held various roles within Birches Group since 2009, starting as a Compensation Analyst and worked her way to Compensation Team Lead, and Training Program Services Manager. In addition to her current role in marketing and communications, she represents Birches Group in international HR conferences with private sector audiences.

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Birches Group and The HR Partners held a Webinar on March 2, 2016 on the subject of “Managing Compensation in Developing Economies.”  If you were unable to join us, or just want to listen to the content again, you can watch a video of the full webinar below.

Date:  Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Time:  9:00 (New York) / 12:00 (São Paulo) / 14:00 (London) / 16:00 (Johannesburg) / 18:00 (Dubai)

Watch the Webinar Recording:

Download the Presentation

Download the Questions and Answers


In human resources, salary benchmarking serves many critical needs. It helps organizations assess the competitiveness of their total compensation versus the market, and is an important step in managing your human resources program. When organizations look to introduce new positions, salary benchmarking ensures a good understanding of the prevailing market conditions.

Here’s a short checklist – five steps – to follow for your next benchmarking exercise:

  1. Start with a High-Quality Survey

To do any benchmarking, you need market data, and that market data comes in the form of a survey.  The foundation to any market survey is its job matching approach. The job matching exercise ensures that jobs of similar levels of complexity are benchmarked against each other to establish common value across the market. 

It’s important to understand the methodology for job matching used by the survey provider and how the process is managed.  Are clients responsible for job matching, or does the consultant take the lead?

In Birches Group’s Community™ Market surveys, our survey specialists perform the job matching on behalf of every client, ensuring consistency and high-quality.

We use a job matching methodology that is simple, clear, and consistent, based on our Community™ Jobs evaluation approach.  Community™ Jobs considers three factors – PurposeEngagement, and Delivery.

Purpose enables us to examine each role within the organization and determine its primary objectives and how it supports the overall mission of the organization. Engagement identifies how each job interacts and collaborates with internal and external stakeholders to carry out its function. Delivery examines how each role plans, organizes and delivers work to fulfill the organization’s mission.

These three factors are present in any job, at any level. And together, they allow us to understand how an organization conducts business across all levels of work, starting with defining the purpose of its jobs, determining their level of engagement, and examining how each of its roles organizes and delivers service.

2. Focus on Grade Data

Many salary surveys take pride in the number of specific jobs captured in their surveys, but this is really a questionable practice.  Most organizations use generic pay bands and set pay ranges for all jobs at a particular level across all occupations.  Jobs with the same internal grade are paid in the same pay range, so the differences measured in the survey between different jobs are based not on job characteristics at all, but personal ones, like performance or tenure. Job data is also easily affected by the number of incumbents matched to a particular role, giving an illusion of precise differences based on volatile data of questionable value. The differences reported in the survey by job are misleading

When benchmarking your salaries, we believe that organizations should focus on grade data. Grade data is based on the job level and the associated ranges, and not the actual people sitting in those jobs. It’s a more reliable analysis because grade data captures all jobs with the same contribution level to an organization.  Grade data is a more stable representation of actual market movement versus incumbent salaries, which is highly variable.

3. Know Your Target Market

Before making your assessment, it is important that you select the survey comparators that are relevant to your organization. Out of the bigger survey sample, you will need to choose a smaller group of comparators relevant for your organization.

Market surveys can have twenty to over a hundred participants, or even more. But it does not necessarily mean that you compete with each one of them. If you are unsure where to begin with your selection, the criteria below are great places to start:

  • Organizations working in the same/similar sectors;
  • Those which you have lost staff to/hired staff from;
  • and Organizations in the same geographic area. 

You should also consider comparator organizations which share a similar Employee Value Proposition (EVP). Each company’s EVP is different, but look for organizations that have similar mission, approaches to career development, or pay and benefits philosophies similar to your own organization.

4. Identify Your Market Position

Once you have narrowed down the selection to your chosen comparators, the next step is to identify which level or percentile of the sample you want to target. But before making that decision, you will need to go back to your company’s EVP. Your EVP for total rewards should state your organization’s objective for competitive market position. 

Organizations typically state their target market position as a percentile of the targeted comparator group.  A position versus the 50th percentile or median of the market is common; going higher or lower is OK, too – it depends on what talent market you are trying to reach.

Being competitive is not always just about salaries. Allowances and benefits – monetary and non-monetary – can also be used to attract and retain talent. In our own experience, we have encountered companies that choose to position their salaries a bit lower in the market range but offer additional benefits on top of market practice. Again, depending on your company’s EVP, its all about striking that balance.

5. Always Use Fresh Data

If you are responsible for managing your company’s compensation and benefits, one concern that you might have is making sure that you are working with the most updated market information. Companies that have solid compensation policies will still struggle to maintain their competitiveness in the market if they are working with outdated information.

In Birches Group, we recognize that not all organizations update salaries at the same time every year or apply the same frequency between salary reviews. We know that organizations choose to participate in salary surveys when it makes sense for them. Our surveys are evergreen, with the opportunity to participate when it makes the most sense for you, and multiple publication dates.

Our Community™ Market salary surveys are updated three times a year, every AprilJuly, and October. This ensures that we always have the freshest data in our surveys and that any change to your compensation and benefits can easily be captured anytime during the year. Our evergreen approach also allows us to grow our survey sample throughout the year, providing our participants with the most robust data possible.

Birches Group provides labor market information for over 150 countries around the world. Our compensation and benefits surveys cover a full range of professional and support levels, providing information that ensures a client’s pay practices are aligned with the market conditions of leading employers in each country. Contact us to learn more.

Bianca manages our Marketing Team in Manila. She crafts messaging around Community™ concepts and develops promotional campaigns answering why Community™ should be each organization’s preferred solution, focusing on its simplicity and integrated approach. She has held various roles within Birches Group since 2009, starting as a Compensation Analyst and worked her way to Compensation Team Lead, and Training Program Services Manager. In addition to her current role in marketing and communications, she represents Birches Group in international HR conferences with private sector audiences.


Lately, we have been receiving a lot of inquires from clients about how to best manage compensation in high-inflation countries, including Ghana, South Sudan, Zambia, Argentina,  Venezuela, Kazakhstan, etc. (to name a few!). This post shares our guidance about managing compensation when uncontrollable events, like hyper-inflation, impact the labor market.

What are “Uncontrollable Events”?
The world is a complicated place to do business. There are many unforeseen circumstances that occur to disrupt the normal dynamics of a labor market. Examples include:

  • hyper-inflation, devaluation and other economic events;
  • natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, etc.;
  • periods of unrest, civil war or other armed conflicts; and
  • accidents impacting infrastructure such as the power grid and telecommunications.

I’m sure you can think of other situations that fit the definition.

You Need to Have a Policy for “Special Measures”
The common thread in all of the above uncontrollable events is uncertainty — nobody knows what’s going to happen, how long it will last, and what tomorrow may bring.

Special Measures Policy is a way to assist managers and staff when a crisis occurs. The policy outlines what the company will do when certain uncontrollable events occur.

It might not be what employees want or ask for, but it’s what they can count on from the Company, which turns out to be even more important. Let me give you some examples using the topic everyone is asking about – high inflation.

How to Manage Compensation During Periods of Economic Turmoil
Suppose the situation you are concerned about is similar to what happened in Ghana in the summer of 2014. Devaluation over the 12 months from July 2013 in Ghana was approaching 50%. Various sources reported the annual rate of inflation in Ghana around 15% and trending higher, perhaps towards 20% by year-end. Some sources were reporting even higher numbers.

The first thing to consider is whether or not the situation qualifies as one which should be addressed by special measures. Inflation of 15% to 20% is high, but if the increase is gradual each month then it might be possible to address it through normal compensation management, perhaps with an extra pay adjustment mid-year. But if the inflation rate were higher, say 25% or more, and the increase in inflation happened all at once (or over a short period of time), then special measures might apply. Devaluation is generally not a factor in determining salaries for local staff. However, high devaluation is normally followed by periods of high inflation, so it becomes relevant.

Our recommended approach to managing a situation like the one described above is as follows:

  • If the threshold you’ve set for inflation (for example) is reached or exceeded, apply your special measures. When establishing thresholds, be sure to identify multiple, reliable data sources. Be wary of official sources.
  • We suggest providing an across-the-board increase of no more than 25% of the inflation (e.g., if inflation is measured at 40%, provide no more than 10%, which is 25% of 40%). Be sure to consider your desired market position and adjust the increase to be sure you don’t exceed where you want to be positioned in the market.
  • Treat the increase as a temporary allowance separate from base salary.
  • Monitor the market over the next three to six months through the use of market surveys, and conversations with consultants and other employers in the market.
  • When the market movement, as measured by the surveys and other data, exceeds the amount of the temporary increase, it’s time to convert the temporary allowance into base salary.
  • Having two increases per year instead of one often helps smooth out the disruptions, too.

Why does this approach work? There are several reasons:

  1. You have a policy which can relied on by your employees, providing them with some certainty in an otherwise uncertain period in their country.
  2. While employees often express the need to be “kept whole” that is not how it works — your policy clearly indicates that the Company will offer only partial compensation for special measures. There are no surprises, and you continue to use cost of labor, not cost of living, to drive your compensation program.
  3. It’s a very conservative approach, allowing you to continue to monitor the situation and increase salaries slowly, ensuring you can continue to manage your compensation according to market conditions rather than uncontrollable economic events.
  4. It’s unlikely that you will over-compensate for an event, thus allowing you to have positive employee communications and avoid any possible acquired-rights issues.

There could be variations on how a Special Measures policy is implemented, which types of events are covered, and the specific steps each Company decides to follow.

The important thing is to have a policy and use it.

Employees want to rely on you to help them during a crisis, and managers want to be able to make decisions quickly during difficult times. A clearly written policy for Special Measures addresses these concerns easily.

Other Resources
I have written a few other articles for my blog on related topics that you might find useful as well. Although they were written a few years ago, the information is applicable to current conditions as well.

Here are three useful links:

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


Geopolitical tensions in the Middle East have taken a severe toll in the region’s economic stability. Countries currently confronting waves of unprecedented civil wars such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, along with an unprecedented flow of refugees, have achieved very minimal GDP growth in the recent years. And there is spillover to neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Jordan as well. 

The economy of Yemen, for instance, contracted by 28.1% after a year of ravaging conflicts since March of 2015, indicating an imminent hyperinflation. On a broader scale, inflation in the MENA region surged from 3.9% to 4.1% in May – the highest rate since October of 2015. 

Living in war-torn areas is grueling and difficult for employees.  Volatile prices result from high inflation rates, coupled with periodic shortages of goods. These uncontrollable events are disruptive, and quite often, employers are compelled to rethink compensation packages to help address the pain and difficulty of living amid civil unrest, especially where the turnover of staff is uncomfortably high. 

In countries experiencing a crisis, monitoring GDP, inflation rates, and other economic indicators along with survey data may be insufficient for you to determine proper salary actions. As employers, you need to ask: with fluctuating inflation and limited availability of reliable data, what is the best way to manage compensation packages? 

A Way Forward 

Reviewing your compensation policies requires looking at how other organizations adapt and react in conflict-stricken economies. Instead of just increasing base salaries, which permanently increases fixed costs, employers sometimes provide special benefits such as cash allowances instead, which are usually implemented on a temporary basis. This approach allows employers to respond conservatively and manage costs effectively until the political turmoil in the region gets resolved. In Iraq and Syria, for example, some employers have reported providing a Risk Allowance to their staff during times of conflict.  Such steps go a long way towards ensuring loyalty and reducing undesirable turnover. 

Employers can also take steps to assist staff with commuting to the office safely, and other security measures.  Work from home options are also helpful when it is too dangerous to travel to the office. 

Even though declining oil prices are impacting the region’s economy, the World Bank reports that the private sector is hoped to become the backbone of a new growth model in the Middle East, especially when effective policies are able to address security conditions and long-standing conflicts that currently upset business sentiment. As the economy recovers, the market will soon catch up, and salaries will increase more rapidly. 

Birches Group provides updated, concise, and easy-to-digest labor market data reflective of the actual market conditions on which you can base your decisions. Using a cost-of-labor approach, our data allows you to monitor market movement over short- and long-term periods.  Our surveys are updated three times a year, in April, July and October, providing a current window to market practice on a continuous basis. 

To find out more about the conditions in countries mentioned in this article, or to learn more about Birches Group surveys throughout the developing world, please contact us

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


For many years, employers have used salary surveys to provide market references to manage compensation in their organization and to “price jobs” in the market.  Conventional wisdom suggests a high-quality, reliable survey has the following characteristics:

  • The largest possible group of participants
  • The greatest number of specific jobs
  • The highest number of incumbents reported
  • Survey statistics based on incumbent-weighted averages

In short, bigger is better.

As is often the case, we believe that the conventional wisdom is wrong!

Incumbent-based data is not job-based – it’s personal!

Think about it.

  • Salary ranges represent the range of pay an employer is prepared to offer for position with the same level of contribution to their organization (e.g., the same equivalent worth).
  • All incumbents are placed within the same internal, generic range (employers do not usually have separate salary scales for each occupational group or function).
  • Individual salary levels are not determined by any job factor!  Incumbent salaries are based on personal characteristics such as qualifications, skills, experience and performance, and organizational constraints such as internal policies and guidelines, and internal equity.

There are no job-based factors used to determine placement in the range.  It is easy to conclude using actual incumbent salaries instead of salary ranges is — at best – misleading, if not entirely invalid.  But don’t take our word for it.  Let’s put it to a test.

Salary Range Data is Highly Correlated to Incumbent Values

Birches Group did an analysis of actual incumbent data values and the corresponding salary range values for BG-10 level Senior Working Professional roles in Jamaica.  The dataset included positions from seven different job families.  Twenty-nine employers reported data at this level.

To start the analysis, we examined each discrete position reported by each employer.  In the chart below, the positions are color-coded by occupation (job family), and each employer is represented by a vertical array of dots.  The chart shows all observations, not a specific percentile.

You can see there is a wide variety of values, both within each employer and across different ones.

Next, we examined the salary ranges for these employers, and determined how the incumbent salaries fell into each employers’ salary range.  The chart below shows the ranges.

It’s clear that except for two employers with no formal range defined (the two single dots in the chart circled in red), the rest all have salary ranges defined.  Some of the incumbent values are distributed across the ranges, while some are more clustered, but they are all within the range!  You will also notice that the range spans (the “distance” from minimum to maximum) varies quite a bit – some employers use narrow ranges, others wider ranges, depending on their unique circumstances and requirements.

A common benchmark that many clients use is the 50th percentile or median of the market.  While we could debate the definition of “the market” (and we will in another post), it is possible to measure the median of the salary ranges in a market.

For BG-10 in Jamaica, the subject of this analysis, the 50th percentile salary range is J$ 6,273,150 to J$ 9,576,152.  We calculated these numbers by simply separately calculating the median of all the reported minimum values, and all the reported maximum values. The next chart shows this median range added to the incumbent chart.

Now you can see which incumbent data points are within the 50th percentile range in the market.  It’s important to realize that a percentile value in a salary survey should never be a single number; it should always be a salary range.  If you rely only on incumbent data points when using surveys, you are missing out on what is really happening in the market.

Combining the two prior charts yields the next one, which shows the employer salary ranges against the 50th percentile (shaded blue horizontal bars):

You can observe that just 6 employers (about 21% of the sample) have ranges that are totally outside of the 50th percentile range of the market.  Or stated another way – nearly 80% of employers have a salary range that intersects with the market median range.

We also examined the data by occupation, looking at the mean range for each occupation versus the market.

In the above chart, you can see, aside from Logistics and Program, which were matched by fewer than 8 employers and not truly representative, the rest of the occupational data ranges fall well within the overall 50th percentile.  In other words, the occupation or job family doesn’t impact the going rate for a job very much at all, and it would be very easy to just use the overall data, without any occupational designations, as the basis to determine your market position.

Think about it.

You go crazy trying to match multiple benchmark jobs in surveys.  Then you take that data and apply a secret formula (perhaps weighted averages by incumbent count, for example) to arrive at a “going rate” for your midpoint.  But the data you are combining isn’t really that different; our data shows you could just take the range we report and go from there.  Much easier.

A New Vision for Salary Survey Data

Birches Group believes that salary survey data should be job-based, not personal.  Salary ranges represent for an employer the potential range of salary which the organization is willing to pay for a job at a specific grade level in the organization.  In other words, the range represents the value the organization attaches to all jobs at that grade level, which are deemed to have equivalent worth because they have been evaluated to the same grade.  Salary ranges, not incumbent data, represent job-based values which are appropriate for benchmarking salaries.

By comparing salary ranges instead of incumbent data, employers avoid using personal data, which is volatile and introduces a level of false precision which is misleading when specific jobs or occupations are compared to each other.

Introducing Community™ Market

Community™ Market is the new name for the Birches Group salary and benefits survey.  The survey format has been streamlined and simplified and includes several new features, including an easy and convenient way to assess your market position at a glance.  Another important change is the way job information will be captured.  We will no longer show separate market values for each benchmark job.  Instead, we will show data aggregated for all jobs at the same Birches Group level.  We will still identify which jobs are in which grade, but as we’ve demonstrated, the occupational differences reported in surveys (including ours) are resulting from personal data, not job-based information, and are not appropriate for benchmarking.

Beginning in October 2019, the new format will be the standard report output for all our surveys.  And starting in April 2020, we will no longer collect incumbent-based data since it will no longer appear in the survey reports.

Community™ Market is part of the Birches Group Community™ platform for integrated HR management.  The platform includes modules for job evaluation (Community™ Jobs), skills assessment (Community™ Skills) and performance management (Community™ Performance) in addition to market surveys.  The job levels established using our Community™ Jobs methodology are used to provide job levels in our surveys, and to assess skills and performance against standards that reflect the same job levels.  It’s the first integrated approach to human resources management.

Learn More

Contact us to learn more about the changes in our survey methodology, or to explore how the Community™ platform can be useful for your organization.

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


If you work in international HR, you know how important market data is for the management of your international operations. Finding reliable data in all of your countries is undoubtedly a challenge. Each country has different survey suppliers, different employers participating in the surveys, and variable levels of quality. So naturally, when you find a survey you trust, the tendency is to stick with it. But is one survey enough? I don’t think so.

Two Surveys Provide A Balanced View of the Market

Typically, your “go-to” survey has several characteristics:

  • It reflects the market in which you compete – the participants are the ones you are most often look for, usually from the same sector. It’s the survey “everyone” is in.
  • It’s the one that “corporate” designates (and pays for) – sometimes it’s not the best, but you have to follow headquarters instructions, and besides, it doesn’t hit your budget.
  • It’s the survey you’re used to – why bother exploring another option when you’ve finally mastered this one?
  • The survey results are OK – you’ve never had a problem using the survey, well, except a few times when some of the data was a bit suspect, but overall, it’s fine.

These are some of the typical reasons why companies participate and rely on surveys year after year. But these same reasons often stand in the way of exploring additional options.

They say two heads are better than one. While I have yet to meet a two-headed individual, I have worked with a lot with surveys, and I can attest to the fact that two surveys are better than one!

There are many reasons for this — here’s just a few:

  • Some key employers might be missing – by participating in another survey, you will get an alternative group of employers and therefore, a broader view of the market. If your main survey is a sector-based one, try a general market survey to complement your sector data.
  • Survey methodologies vary – and this means the results from another survey could be different. Different could be good – it will challenge you to dig deeper and try to understand the differences. Perhaps the alternative survey provides more details in certain areas, such as non-salary allowances and benefits in-kind, or uses a unique valuation for benefits.
  • The results might actually be aligned – maybe the data from the two surveys match closely. That reinforces the conclusions you may have already reached and raises the confidence in both surveys as a result.
  • The results might be totally different – thus allowing you to explore the full extent of the market options. Is it the employer group that causes the difference, or the methodology? How do you know which survey is right?

The answers to these dilemmas, of course, vary according to your unique situation. Which country? Which sector? How great are the differences? You have to explore to find the answer for your company.

So Look Beyond Your Old Reliable Survey

Challenge yourself to participate in at least two surveys. Make sure that they focus on different aspects of the market and bring a unique perspective. Analyze the data carefully and apply your judgement to incorporate data from both perspectives. Soon you will find you have a better understanding of the market.

If you need a first or second survey source for your international locations, be sure to check out Birches Group surveys. We cover 148 developing markets, more than any other global provider, updated three times a year. Together with Aon Hewitt, our marketing partner, we cover the world.

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


In the first installment of this series, we wrote about why jobs don’t matter in salary surveys.  We hope you’ve already read it, but if not, be sure to do so.  This week, we will bust another myth – market percentiles.

Users of salary surveys are accustomed to referring to the market data in terms of a percentile.  The most common percentile of reference is the median average or 50th percentile.  Simply stated, the 50th percentile of an array of values is the point where there are equal numbers of observations above and below.  This is a definition from mathematics – it has nothing to do with salary surveys.

For example, suppose you want to analyze passengers at a bus stop.  If you capture the number of passengers boarding each bus during an hour and sort the data from low to high, the middle value is easy to spot.  You can calculate the median number of passengers getting on at that particular stop fairly easily.

Salary survey providers also report data back to users as percentiles.  If you are targeting the 50th percentile, you might look at a range including the 25th, 50th and 75th percentiles in order to decide on the value to use in your analysis.  The graph below illustrates the “pay line” approach found in most surveys:

You can start your analysis with the 50th percentile value (97,777), and adjust it up or down to suit your needs.  As you move horizontally along the x-axis, you pass through multiple percentiles – increasing to the right, decreasing to the left.  But there is no information about vertical movement.  We refer to this as a horizontal market model.

But wait a minute!  Is that right?

Is the 50th percentile of the labor market in a salary survey a single value, like the number of bus passengers?

Nope.  For any percentile value, the labor market is more accurately measured using a range of values.  You see, organizations define their salary structures with minimum and maximum values.  All staff are paid in between these bookends, defined by grade or band.  At any given moment, you would ideally be able to see the 50th percentile range of the market, from the salary scale minimum to the salary scale maximum.  The incumbent value could be captured too, since it falls somewhere in between the minimum and the maximum.

At Birches Group, we call this the Market Footprint™.  In our surveys, we capture three separate pay lines – one for the salary scale minimum, one for the salary maximum and the incumbent average, MRP or market reference point.  The graph that follows illustrates the Market Footprint™.

What is interesting about the Market Footprint™ is the rich level of information you can observe by just adding two more pay lines (the minimum and maximum).  Now, if you settle on the 50th percentile, you have a range of values to choose from within that percentile, by moving vertically from minimum to maximum.  And while it is possible to also move horizontally through different percentiles as before, you can also observe there is some overlap across percentiles.  The orange arrows in the graph show two examples of values that occur in two of the market reference percentiles simultaneously.  In addition, the red line illustrating the incumbent data clearly has variations depending on the percentile.  In the 25th percentile, employers are paying closer to the minimum of the range, while at the 50th and 75th percentiles, the incumbent average is close to the actual midpoint of the range.

We strongly believe that looking at market data in one dimension (horizontally) doesn’t allow employers the flexibility needed to design compensation structures properly.

Using a two-dimensional approach (both horizontal and vertical) gives employers the flexibility to address both individual situations and the overall company requirements.

Suppose you have a salary band and one group of employees, say engineers, needs to be paid higher than other occupations due to market pressures.  If you had access to market ranges by percentile, you could easily set the salary of the engineers at competitive levels to the market but still within your stated market reference (say, 50th percentile).  This allows you to address a market issue and stay true to your policy at the same time – quite an elegant outcome.

Another useful outcome of taking a Market Footprint™ approach is setting your salary range spans – the “width” of your pay bands from minimum to maximum.  In many developing countries, the spans vary widely, and even within the same country, vary substantially by level.  If you use survey data that captures the ranges, you can benchmark against the actual spans in the market, and adjust yours to match the common practice, if desirable.  This avoids overpaying on the low end and underpaying on the high end of the range.

We hope this has given you some food for thought.  Using range data as part of your market analysis will free you from the confines of your current approach.  This series of articles is designed to help employers consider how they use survey data, and open the discussion about the pitfalls of the common approaches.

It’s time to rethink how surveys are conducted and used.  One-dimensional analysis just doesn’t cut it any more. You need to look for sources that give you a flexible way to analyze your market data.  We will share more ideas in the coming weeks.

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


One of the most important steps in deciding on a salary survey is identifying which other employers are included as participants and their relevance for your company.  Conventional wisdom would dictate that you should look primarily at other companies in your sector.  In fact, many survey companies have built their businesses over the years exclusively with this approach.

Do sector-based approaches work in developing countries? At Birches Group, we would suggest, in the majority of cases, the answer is NO!

Here’s why:

  • Individual sectors are not large enough.
  • Data stratification – there are big gaps between the best and the rest.
  • Your sector is not an island – you compete with all sectors in the market.

Let’s examine each of these reasons in more detail.

Sectors are too small

In developed markets such as North America and Western Europe, sector specific data is common.  It is also true that there are large numbers of companies in each sector, so the chances of getting access to a survey for your sector with at least 15 companies is fairly high.

However, in developing markets, a sector-based sample could fall short.  First of all, there are fewer comparators operating in these markets.  Instead of 15, you may be able to access only 6 or 8 companies.

And it’s not just the number of companies, but the scope of their operations, too. One may have full operations and another might consist of just a small sales office. If your company has full operations, comparing to small sales operations isn’t too useful.  This is a case where revenue data is not too helpful, but number of employees might be useful.

Data stratification

In developing markets, the gap between “the best” and “the rest” is very large.  Most prominent employers want to compete with the best, but their sector-only survey is missing a big piece of that market, because it includes many smaller companies, perhaps local ones, which may not be competitive with multi-nationals.

Multi-sector approaches work better

We are strong advocates of a multi-sector approach to surveys. In highly stratified markets, “the best” employers will likely be a few from each sector. So a good multi-sector sample of the best employers from each important sector in the market yields a market profile which has tremendous relevance for dynamic employers.

Which sectors should be used?

So which are the “important” sectors?  In developing markets, there typically are representatives from:

  • Retail Banking;
  • Fast-moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) such as soap, toothpaste, tobacco, food and beverages;
  • Natural Resources such as oil, gas and mining (if present in country); and
  • Technology and Mobile Telecom.

Other important sectors found in some markets include engineering and construction, pharmaceuticals, agri-business, logistics, and more.

What about the International Public Sector?

In addition to all of the sectors mentioned above, another very important sector in developing markets is the international public sector. This sector includes three different kinds of employers:

  • Multilateral organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, regional development banks, European Commission, and many others.
  • Bi-laterals, including diplomatic missions and development aid organizations from a single country with representation in the subject country
  • International NGOs, which work implementing programs to improve the quality of life and address the toughest humanitarian, health, human rights and environmental issues facing the world today.

One of the best reasons to look for international public sector organizations in your survey group is because they have been operating in developing markets for a very long time. In fact, these organizations are often the first ones to enter a country following volatile events such as political collapse or civil war, assisting with rebuilding civil society and helping to ensure that when private companies operate or expand their operations, that everything works the way it is supposed to work.

As an example, the US Embassy has operations in 144 of the 148 countries where Birches Group conducts surveys. Our largest NGO clients operate across 60 to 70 developing markets.  The International Committee of the Red Cross is in over 90 Birches Group markets.  Few private sector companies have such a large footprint in developing markets (if yours is one of them, we should talk!).

Still, many clients ask us why the international public sector is relevant. They don’t see any connections between economists, aid workers and diplomatic services as compared to infrastructure engineers, brand managers and banking staff.

Here are five more examples to consider:

  1. ALL employers hire people in the areas of administration, finance, procurement, human resources, support and clerical roles, and less-skilled positions such as guards, drivers, and messengers. It doesn’t matter much which sector your company is part of, you are competing with all of them — including the international public sector.
  2. For key professional roles at all levels, private sector firms target the best-qualified workers. So do international public sector organizations!  They are competing with the rest of the market, just like your company.
  3. Each company has unique professional roles that often are distinct for the business and usually sector-specific. Think brand managers from FMCG companies, loan officers in banking, telecom engineers in the mobile phone industry, etc.  Remember these roles can be compared easily using a level-based approach to other jobs of equivalent value from across all sectors.  And if you use the Market Footprint approach to analyze the data, occupational differences driven by market conditions like hot skills can be easily addressed, too.
  4. International public sector employers have strong employer brands, pay well, and offer some unique opportunities, such as programs with important missions, opportunities for overseas assignments, and even the possibility of citizenship in some cases. In many countries, they are prestigious employers, and landing a position is considered an exceptional achievement.
  5. Talent in developing countries moves between sectors, public and private, frequently. Cross-sectoral competition for talent is fierce, and those that ignore it do so at their own peril.

In Summary

We recommend a multi-sector survey approach in developing markets.  In those countries where sector data is also available, it can be useful to look at sector cuts, too. By looking at the overall market data together with sector data, you get the added understanding of how the sector relates to the overall market.  Using a survey which includes international public sector employers ensures that these key players are represented in your market profile.

It’s time to rethink how survey comparators are chosen, and how unreliable, sector-specific data is used, often without the benefit of a broader market context.  We will share more ideas in future installments of this series.

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.


Employers use salary surveys to measure the market and remain competitive.  But making such a comparison can be quite difficult, even misleading. Conventional wisdom tells us to compare average incumbent salary to survey data by the job.  This is commonly referred to as the compa-ratio.

Suppose your target market position is the 50th percentile value from your survey, say 110,000.  If your company’s incumbent value for the same job is 98,650, the compa-ratio is 89.7.  This means your compensation value is 89.7% of the target, or to put it another way, 10.3% below market.

Wait a minute!  Is this right?  What if there is more than one incumbent, say one earning 98,650, and another, earning 121,330.  We can just use the average, 109,990.  The compa-ratio has changed to 99.9.  So we’re right on target.  Phew!

You can see that as more data is introduced to the mix, the average will change and so will the compa-ratio.  It’s kind of misleading, isn’t it?

There is another way.  As we explained in a prior post in this series, about percentiles, your target market position is a range, not a single value.  In our example above, let’s try the comparison in a slightly different way.  Instead of looking at the average of all the incumbents in a particular job or grade, let’s compare your salary range to the market salary range.  That’s right.  Compare your minimum to the minimum in the survey, and the maximum to the maximum in the survey.  The graph below illustrates the concept.

The left column shows the employer’s salary range, while the right column illustrates the range found in the market.  The orange portion represents the upper portion of the range, from midpoint to maximum, while the rust portion represents the portion from the minimum to midpoint.  The employer range is symmetric, with the midpoint exactly in the middle of the range, while the market data is shows the incumbent average as the “midpoint”, not exactly in the middle of the range, but reflecting the actual practice in the market.

At first glance, it appears the employer’s range is just fine.  It is entirely within the market range at the 50th percentile, according to the company policy.  Let’s take a closer look.

The red lines in the second graph show how the employer range overlaps with the market.  The incumbent average in the market is clearly higher than the midpoint of the employer’s range, and the market span (distance from minimum to maximum) is wider.   This means that the employer is paying a bit more for new entrants, but their pay is capping out sooner than the market for experienced talent.  Each employer needs to decide if this is a desirable outcome for their unique situation.

How can the compa-ratio concept be applied to this comparison?  At Birches Group, we often do such a comparison as follows:

So, this indicates that the employer is very close to their target – just 0.8 above.  They are 8.2% above at the minimum, but trailing the market maximum by 6.6%.

What else does this sort of comparison tell us? First, it allows a comparison of your salary range spans to market spans.  Oftentimes, clients simply assume spans are the same in every country and at every level of the organization; our data shows that this is simply not true.

Second, you can understand the range penetration in the market – how close to the maximum is the incumbent average?  Is it around the middle of the market span, or closer to the minimum or maximum?  This provides additional insights to employers when updating their ranges.

Finally, you can start to use your salary structure as more than a compensation metering tool.  For example, if you align your spans to your organization structure properly, then for grades where you have jobs for which there is no path for upward mobility, you can deploy wider ranges to allow for pay growth over time without promotions.  Similarly, in grades where the expectation is up or out in a short period of time, a narrow span could work just fine.

In Summary

Relying strictly on incumbent average comparisons to market medians is a misleading approach which is subject to volatility when incumbent data shifts. Comparing salary ranges to market ranges is a powerful alternative (or supplement) which provides employers with additional market insights.

We hope you are realizing that our effort to rethink salary surveys is from top to bottom!  There’s a lot to consider when comparing yourself to the market.  But the most basic comparison – the compa-ratio – can be redefined in a very powerful way.

Warren joined Birches Group in New York as a partner in 2007, following a long career in Compensation and Benefits at Colgate-Palmolive. He held the position of Director, International Compensation for 10 years immediately prior to joining Birches Group. Warren has broad experience working across the globe with clients on local national and expatriate compensation projects. He leads our Business Development and Client Services teams and manages our strategic partnerships around the world. Warren previously held leadership positions for the Expatriate Management Committee of the National Foreign Trade Council and was president of the Latin America Compensation and Benefits Forum.

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