Consultancy, strategy and change

Salary surveys... and why I have it in for them

There are three kinds of lies:
“Lies, damned lies and statistics”
 Mark Twain
There are six words that I, as a recruitment consultant, dread hearing more than any other. Not “We’re using one of your competitors” or even “I’m sorry, the bar is closed”. The six words in question are, “Can I have a salary survey?”
Innocent enough, and a regular enough occurrence for me, my colleagues at PageGroup and virtually every other reputable global recruitment company to spend loads of time collecting, collating and presenting data to an expectant public. However, I can’t remember a single occasion, in my 20 years in recruitment, of a client or candidate ringing me after receiving the survey to thank me for it. Given that clients and candidates can be, in my experience, quite nice people; it clearly means that they are not getting what they hoped to get from a salary survey.
Here’s why…

1. Who is it for?

Recruitment consultants produce salary surveys to help good quality candidates realise how crushingly underpaid they are so they pick up the phone to register. Fact. End of.
The only way we could justify the amount of work we put into this process (without charging an astronomical fee) is by getting to know some new candidates. However, over time, the purposes of surveys have become blurred as more and more clients have asked us to see the results. In essence there’s nothing wrong in this, but it has tended to mean that the way information has been presented has changed to reflect the wider audience.
Historically, when surveys were created with purely the candidates in mind, the data was presented in such a way as to give the candidate a relatively specific figure. You’re a project manager, working in financial services in London. You’re worth £X (+/- 10%). However, as the presentation has become more generalised the outcomes inevitably become more vague. (I saw one recently with a salary range for a particular job of £50-150k – very useful).
Hence every candidate and client finds their salaries are within the specified range, no one learns anything new and no one says thank you!

2. Fragmenting UK plc

The North/South divide, if not an established fact, is widely recognised, but increasingly it is evident that there are big salary variations both within regions and across sectors. These, again, mean that data can end up being overly general and less useful.
In times past it was fairly easy to generalise that financial services would pay most, followed by industry and commerce, with the public and not-for-profit sectors the least well remunerated. However, the picture is much less clear now as all these sectors will hide huge variations within their subsectors. A really good example is that a social housing organisation may now pay more for a change manager than a similar sized commercial property company. The goal posts have changed and it becomes more and more difficult to generalise.
Similarly it becomes harder to talk with any degree of confidence about salaries across regions, as localised factors of supply and demand can lead to big differences in relatively small areas. For example, salary surveys regularly show the Home Counties remuneration at about London minus 10%. However, in east Kent or north Essex a candidate will probably earn less than in central Birmingham or Manchester. Generalising is hard.

3. The Rise of the Technocrats

Years ago, a salary survey might list a dozen or so roles, three sectors and maybe six or seven locations, and there would be a salary for each. However, this is just an impossibility now, as not only are salaries increasingly variable depending on where you live and what sector you work in, but also the specifics rather that generalities of what you do.
This has always been the case in technical disciplines like IT, engineering and, to some extent, finance. However it is becoming increasingly true of those disciplines not traditionally viewed as techy. HR is a good example.
20 years ago most HR departments would have consisted of an HRD, a couple of HR managers, half a dozen HR officers and someone to open the post. In 2013 the world has radically changed, and the department may have an L&D advisor, comp & ben specialist, employee relations professional, HR business partner, recruitment consultant, etc. Even if they were all at exactly the same stage of their careers, providing generalised salary input is impossible.
So what’s the alternative? In reality it’s straightforward. Instead of clients and candidates asking for the accepted norm of the salary survey and recruiters trotting it out to an ungrateful audience, we need to reframe the question. Or perhaps return to the original question. The original question which must have started all this must have been either “Am I paid enough?” or “Are we paying enough?” Unfortunately it’s come out of our clients’ or candidates’ mouth as “Can I have a salary survey?”
If asked the original question we, as experienced, professional recruiters, have a large amount of knowledge to impart to give you specific, honest feedback on what you should be paid or paying in the open market. Not the range of what 60,000 candidates with loosely similar circumstances to you earn but where you should be pitching yourself or your organisation.
I think this would be more useful. If you think so too, then please contact the Michael Page Consultancy, Strategy and Change team in your local market who can personally guide you.
If not, then I’m sorry to have troubled you and suggest you type ‘salary survey’ into Google.