Leading with Empathy: Navigating the Delicate Conversation About Salary Limits

By Christie Summervill

Leading with Empathy: Navigating the Delicate Conversation About Salary Limits

In the ever-evolving landscape of organizational leadership, one of the most challenging conversations you may encounter is explaining to employees that their current salary level exceeds the maximum of the pay range, making them ineligible for a salary increase. This is a delicate situation that demands sensitivity, empathy, and authenticity. 


Set the Stage for Connection

Begin by verbally acknowledging this conversation may be difficult for the employee and you because you recognize them as highly productive employees. Embrace your vulnerability and accept the discomfort, emphasizing that you intend to foster an open and honest dialogue. Encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.


Prepare Thoroughly

Gather all necessary information and data to ensure you understand the employee’s compensation history, the methodology used to establish the pay range for their role, and the organization’s overall compensation philosophy. This knowledge will enable you to respond confidently and truthfully. Remember, if the job is graded correctly at the maximum of the range, less than 10% of competitors in your asset size will pay more. However, as many jobs can now be done remotely, larger financial institutions (with higher salary ranges) may want to recruit your employees. 


Start with Empathy

Dr. Brene’ Brown’s work on empathy teaches us that it involves understanding the other person’s perspective and connecting with their feelings. Begin by expressing sympathy for the employee’s desire for growth and financial security. Use phrases such as, “I understand this may be disappointing” or “I can imagine this is a challenging conversation.”


Provide Clarity

Clearly explain the organization’s compensation structure, detailing the salary range for the employee’s position and the extent to which the organization has gone to ensure its accuracy. Explain that the maximum range is a benchmark, and the organization must remain equitable and consistent with all employees. Emphasize that this policy ensures fairness and equity across the board. Let them know, if it is true, that you are glad they are paid at the top of the range because you believe their experience and contributions are valued. Remind them that the salary range is evaluated and shifts annually. Let them know if your organization provides a lump sum bonus in lieu of a salary increase for high performers. 40% of banks and credit unions in the U.S. provide this as a standard, but the practice is trending down as the costs of benefits and salaries increase. 


Emphasize Non-Financial Rewards

Shift the focus away from financial incentives and explore other opportunities for personal and professional growth within the organization. Highlight the value of ongoing development, mentorship, and opportunities to take on new responsibilities.


Offer Support and Guidance

Let the employee know that you are committed to supporting their career development. Encourage them to discuss their long-term goals and aspirations and work together to create a plan that aligns with their objectives.


Foster Open Communication

Promote open and honest dialogue by inviting questions and concerns. Be prepared to listen actively and respond empathetically. Your willingness to engage in this dialogue can foster trust and connection.


Reiterate the Organization’s Appreciation

Remind the employee of their value to the organization. Express gratitude for their contributions and acknowledge their continued importance to the team.


Maintain Confidentiality

Emphasize that this conversation will remain confidential and not impact their standing within the organization. Reassure them that this discussion is solely about compensation and does not reflect on their performance.


Follow Up

Schedule a follow-up meeting to check the employee’s progress and career development. Continue to provide support and guidance as they navigate their professional journey within the organization.


In closing, having a conversation about salary limits is a challenging but necessary part of HR leadership. Embracing vulnerability and empathy, as advocated by Dr. Brené Brown, can transform this conversation into an opportunity for growth, understanding, and connection. Remember, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it, and the empathy you bring to the dialogue that can make all the difference in fostering a culture of trust and inclusivity within your organization.

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