How to be a Comp & Ben Partner

I had coffee with a client recently, who is being challenged by her boss to make the comp and benefits function more impactful. She asked how her C&B function could be a more effective partner to the business, more consultative. I gave her some on-the-spot tips, then said I would think about it and write a blog so others could benefit as well. There is so much more that can be said, but here goes.

In summary,

Be everything your boss assumes, and more, and less.

Let me break this down.


Your boss assumes you are technically competent and know how to deliver C&B according to global, regional and local norms and regulations, etc. Your boss assumes you have strong analytical, communication and policy-writing skills. Your boss assumes you can handle managers and employees who are unhappy about pay matters. He assumes you can run a salary review, develop salary ranges, recommend budgets, align pay to performance in traditional ways and manage the bonus plans, maybe even LTI plans. The list goes on. Everything in your JD you should be able to do.


You should also be able to:

  • take a firm stand against something that is not right, that is contrary to good and fair pay principles, that undermines your company’s values or work ethic/expectations or violates the company culture—this may not be “your job” but it is your boss’s job, trust me. Seeing you step up will blow his socks off and prove you are way more than a technical expert. C&B must be the gold standard for what’s fair, even more so than others in HR at times. (I say this because HR business partners sometimes feel compelled to please their customers in ways that would be viewed as unfair to others. Really. It happens.) Here’s a great story to illustrate this point.
  • facilitate “community” problem-solving, going beyond your own expertise and tapping the thoughts of others, engaging key influencers or stakeholders to focus on an issue and share the problem solving process with you. You can invite others with knowledge of the situation even when it is clearly “not their job” to solve it. These people will gladly offer useful thoughts you would not find among those who own the problem. Sometimes a single word spoken by someone in marketing will get you thinking and BAM you have the solution. I approached an SVP expat for help with my rollout of a new (cheaper) expat policy. He openly opposed the policy in management meetings. I took the risk and said to him “I need your help”. We had a short chat about staggering costs of expat housing. I shared a little information with him. From then on, he stopped sabotaging my efforts.
  • explain the business clearly to others. “Our business proposition is to leverage our global supply chain and operating efficiencies to meet the needs of global customers better than anyone else on the planet, in terms of quality, delivery and cost.” Such statements are expected from HR business partners, but not C&B people. Albert Einstein said “if you can’t explain it clearly, you don’t understand it well enough.”
  • align rewards to the business strategy. If your business is about efficiency and low cost for customers, don’t worry about low salaries. Use productivity-based incentives or profit sharing. Maximise flexibility in your policies where possible to deliver value at low cost. Create a culture of recognition and caring. Good people will work for less in return for respect and acknowledgement. If your strategy is to have the best digital solutions, then don’t sweat it when you have to pay market P90 for developers. It’s money well spent.
  • seek value for money like you own the business. If you pay $1,500 to everyone upon their 10-/15-/20-year anniversaries, and your average length of service is 16.4 years, think about it.. What value are you getting for the jubilee/long-service bonuses? What is your overall comparatio? Do you think in terms of fixed costs structure, or do you boast that you pay “above market”. If you pay below market but have no attrition problem, do you see that as a problem? Have lunch with a finance leader and ask her how she views C&B costs in terms of business value. In the HR context, we need to help the business retain key talents and high-potentials. Make sure they are paid well and don’t trust the annual review to make that happen. I once flew to China to retain our top sales executive who had an offer for twice what we were paying him. He was already well paid, but I thought we could keep him if we gave him other things of great value to him, such as mentoring and CEO support. I called the CEO and asked him to call this guy to personally tell him how critical he was to our success in China and to offer his support. It worked. We did not have to match his offer.


  • don’t ask for money. Learn to be resourceful (meet your consultant for coffee!) If you want to introduce a new benefit, find the money from another C&B practice. If your bonus targets are low, don’t ask for approval to raise bonuses from one month to 10% of salary just because the survey says that’s the market number. Your proposal should include a funding solution. In this case, my normal source of funds for a bonus increase is salaries. If I want to add 1.67% to bonus targets (one month = 8.33% of a 12-month salary) to have a 10% target, I might propose a 3.0% salary increment budget for the following year instead of 4.0%. There is no law against a lower salary budget in any country I know of. As far as I can remember, all my proposals for C&B enhancements (higher life insurance, bonus increases, flexible benefits, better hospitalisation benefits, etc.) were self-funded through a specific change in another area. You should assume any change you propose must be cost-neutral. Say that out loud: “cost neutral”. Again: “cost neutral”. Good. Asking for money? Not approved. Cost-neutral. Approved. That’s how it works, folks.
  • negotiate like a salesperson. If someone wants something from you, get something from them. What can HR bargain with? Our currency is support. Do your job as a manager and we will remember you in HR as a good manager. Fail to do your job as a manager and we will remember it in HR. Managers have little idea how much power we actually have in HR. We know who the dumb managers are, and who the good ones are. We can recite on demand who the assholes are in the company. No problem. I think people know this, they just won’t admit it. Do not be afraid to tell managers what they need to do as a manager. I can still name the worst managers, and the best, at the companies I have worked for. If a manager says “that’s HR’s job” or “I don’t care what grade that job is in other departments,” do not be afraid to say “actually it is your job” or “when all the grade 10 product managers learn that your product manager is a grade 11, you will be answerable to the global head of marketing, not to me. Will you be ready for that conversation?” Get comfortable speaking with power, C&B. Being right is a commodity, spend it wisely.
  • don’t say no. In the above example, I did not suggest you tell the manager “no, you can’t make your product manager a grade 11.” I have learned not to say “no” to managers or employees. Here’s a challenge: the next time you have the urge to say (or type in an email) “No..” instead say “if we do that, most likely __ will happen.” Just spell out the likely result. People do not like being told no. Our brains are hard-wired from the age of about 3 months to dislike that word. Decision makers should never ever be told no. They want their C&B partner to give them choices. In any situation there are usually three choices: do nothing (status quo), do what the manager wants to do (they usually propose a solution we see problems with), and a third option (think of something that optimises the pros and minimises the cons.) For each option spell out the pros, the cons and the risks. Decision makers will LOVE you if you can present options to them for every situation. The next time you have an issue, break it down into these three options. Make it a habit.

Finally, one piece of advice given to me in my first international C&B role in 1992, by a great boss by the name of Gary Chicoine: “Be politically astute without being political.”

Basically, be nice to others, even if they are idiots.

I’m not promising it will happen to you, but doing the above helped me become a VP of Comp & Ben for the world’s largest hotel company, save millions in costs, attract and retain key talent, and drive better company growth for five years. These habits helped me build consulting relationships with Coca-Cola, Toyota, and other great clients.

C&B partnering is possible, and it’s way more fun than being just an expert. Good luck, my friend. I hope this was helpful. You can do it!

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