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Variable remuneration doesn’t improve productivity, study finds

A new study has found that performance-based remuneration, contrary to the claims of bank executives, does not significantly improve productivity but decreases compliance.

A study by the University of Macquarie into the impact of remuneration structures on the performance and compliance of financial sector staff has concluded that performance-based remuneration practices, especially those based on balanced scorecards, are “flawed”.

Despite bank executives claiming that short-term variable remuneration works as a motivator for staff to do their best, the university’s study of 318 financial services workers instead showed “remarkably similar” levels of productivity for those who have financial incentives that are based on balanced scorecards and those who operate under a fixed remuneration structure.

Variable remuneration was found to be most effective in boosting performance in “very simple situations”, such as those that involve just one performance indicator that can be easily and objectively measured.

Macquarie University’s Applied Finance Centre associate professor Elizabeth Sheedy attributed the limited improvement in performance to staff being slowed down when having to consider potential ethical compromises.


“The decision to breach, or not breach, policy slows participants down as they weigh up the chance of being caught and possible consequences. They must also consider issues such as moral identity and social standing, further slowing down the speed of mental processing,” Dr Sheedy said.

“Under fixed remuneration, there is less need to consider such issues and so the often-claimed loss in productivity is not observed.”

Dr Sheedy noted that the aims of profit generation and compliance were sometimes at odds with each other, particularly in the short term.

According to the university’s study, the highest rate of compliance with company policy was achieved under a fixed remuneration, with 75 per cent of participants completely compliant across all transactions.

The compliance rate dropped to 62 per cent under a simplified balanced scorecard system, and further to 51 per cent for those who have a compliance gateway.


“With these findings, it seems appropriate for the financial services industry to reconsider the use of the balanced scorecard for remuneration purposes,” the Macquarie University report stated.

Nearly 68 per cent of participants in the Macquarie University study indicated that their variable remuneration is based on a balanced scorecard, almost 22 per cent said that their remuneration was not based on a balanced scorecard and nearly 11 per cent were unsure.

Only 21.2 per cent of participants whose remuneration is based on a balanced scorecard said that 30 per cent to 50 per cent of their scorecard is comprised of “risk/compliance/behavioural matters”, while 19.5 per cent said that such matters account for 10 per cent to 20 per cent of their scorecard, 16.8 per cent said they comprise 20 per cent to 30 per cent, 15 per cent said they account for less than 10 per cent, and 27.4 per cent were unsure.

Dr Sheedy even believes that it is becoming “increasingly difficult to justify the use of variable remuneration in financial services” (even those that are not based on balanced scorecards) given what past and present research continue to show.

“I hope industry leaders and regulators will seriously consider this issue as we continue to do research in this crucial area of performance measurement and remuneration,” the associate professor said.

Of the 318 participants in the Macquarie University study, 64.5 per cent expressed their preference for a “base salary plus variable remuneration based on a balanced scorecard”, while 11 per cent preferred a “base salary plus variable remuneration based on financials only”.

Fixed remuneration was selected as a preference by 22.6 per cent participants, while 1.9 per cent chose an unlisted option.

The study follows Mr Comyn’s testimony to the financial services royal commission that defended short-term variable remuneration, saying that it “elicits discretionary effort” by frontline bank staff, subsequently improving their performance and helping create “an even playing field” for financial institutions and intermediaries such as mortgage brokers.

According to the Commonwealth Bank CEO, having a portion of remuneration that is not fixed motivates staff to do their best in whichever way they are measured. He added that CBA is increasingly focusing on customer outcomes, after admitting to the royal commission that the major bank’s remuneration and incentive structures “were not, in some instances, aligned to good customer outcomes”.

“Clearly, the design of the performance management systems [and] routines are very important in terms of ensuring that we do not drive perverse outcomes from either incentive design or financial motivation,” Mr Comyn said.

“Over time, one of the major changes that we’ve made is reducing financial weightings and outcomes. For my role, my short-term variable remuneration is only 30 per cent. For my predecessors, it would have been 60 per cent. We’ve tried to adopt that principle right through the organisation to have alignment.

“I do not sit here today saying that there are no further opportunities to improve remuneration. I think it’s still an open issue in my mind.”


[Related: Reactive approach led to recurring misconduct: CBA]

Variable remuneration doesn’t improve productivity, study finds
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Tas Bindi

Tas Bindi is the features editor on the mortgage titles and writes about the mortgage industry, macroeconomics, fintech, financial regulation, and market trends.  

Prior to joining Momentum Media, Tas wrote for business and technology titles such as ZDNet, TechRepublic, Startup Daily, and Dynamic Business. 

You can email Tas on: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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