What we learned: Year one of the new P&S classification/compensation system

If the first year of the new market-based classification and compensation system for professional and scientific employees is an indicator, this won't be a "set it and forget it" project. That was a pledge the university human resources (UHR) team made leading up to the September 2020 launch, following its four-year review and development process.

"We've said from the beginning it's a living structure, and we're constantly working on the health of that structure," said UHR compensation analyst and project team member Whitney Grote. "We know it's never done."

Before leaving Iowa State last month, UHR classification and compensation director and team leader Emma Mallarino Houghton completed a summary report on the first year. Included in the progress checklist:

  • Since the system went live, just 12 employees (of more than 3,200 total) have been relinked to another position to correct their initial link in the summer of 2020.
  • Promotions were awarded to 139 employees in a non-competitive process (in which an employee doesn't have to apply for another position to be promoted). This option didn't exist in the old system and needs to be promoted more as an opportunity for employee development, Grote said.
  • 439 employees received salary adjustments outside of the annual performance review process, including 182 employees whose salaries were moved to their new pay grade minimum or higher. "That number is a testament to managers who are dedicated to moving employee salaries forward so this project has a positive impact on employees," Grote said.
  • Working with managers, UHR approved a dozen new classifications, including a four-level technical project specialist series in the research job family, what Grote described as a combination of scientist and project manager.
  • UHR identified funding this year to participate in, and purchase data from, a half dozen salary surveys, up from two annually. The intent is to receive data on a lot more jobs this fall. The data set includes general industry, research and development, and higher education surveys, for a broader perspective.

Adjusting to a new system

Grote said some of the growing pain of the first year is related to employees and supervisors learning a new system. That's to be expected, she said.

"In university time, this is still very new. We implemented during COVID, when many employees were working off campus and going through a lot of different things. So, amid all the change, it's understandable that some are still adjusting to the new system," Grote said.

While the project team developed many "how to" resources on using the new classification/compensation system, education gaps exist, and they're considering other ways to provide training. HR delivery teams remain a frontline resource, she said. Examples of topics that would benefit from more education include:

  • Minimum job qualifications and how to interpret and use them.
  • Career development, career paths and helping employees understand what opportunities are available within the university. The new structure lays the groundwork but isn't "the fix." "The path might not be direct upward movement, but the paths employees want to take in their careers aren't always linear," Grote said.
  • How to use market-based pay grades, especially in job offers.
  • Overall, how to use the structure to find solutions to individual classification or compensation issues rather than seeing the structure as the reason for the issue.

In other cases, a year of implementation has exposed areas that need more attention from the UHR team, Houghton wrote. For example:

  • For some jobs, the pay grades may be too low. More data continually is collected.
  • Job profile descriptions generally are easy to understand but could be more robust to provide clarity.
  • Separate salary increases for excellent performance from market or equity adjustments. Years of small or no performance-based salary increases trained managers to request market adjustments to address exceptional performance. "Employees should be able to progress through a pay grade with meaningful performance increases," Houghton wrote in her report.

Grote encouraged managers and employees to send classification- or compensation-related questions to their local HR delivery teams, who partner with supervisors to address concerns, determine how widespread an issue is and identify possible solutions, she said.