How Compensation Programs Oversimplify Employee Needs

In today’s world of work, leaders and HR professionals are struggling to solve the challenges of increasing turnover and navigate the complexity of employee satisfaction.  The knee-jerk reaction to increasing turnover rates and plummeting morale has been, quite predictably, to review and adjust our compensation programs.

However, navigating the turbulent waters of HR, I’ve realized that the issue isn’t compensation, but culture. Believing we can repair cultural fractures by simply increasing financial incentives is misguided.

Observing the Real Issue

Time and again, I’ve noticed the quick assumption that employee dissatisfaction stems from not enough compensation. This belief is understandable—salary and benefits are tangible and easily adjusted. Eager to prevent turnover, leaders often rush to improve compensation packages, thinking it will solve deeper issues.

From my experience, this approach misses the mark. It neglects the intricate factors of employee unhappiness, like the absence of meaningful recognition, poor communication, or even a toxic workplace culture. This misinterpretation misuses resources and postpones the essential efforts to tackle the real reasons behind discontent or departures. It’s as though we’re attempting to navigate through fog without recognizing the need to clear it. In doing so, we overlook the chance for genuine, impactful changes that reach beyond compensation and directly affect what truly drives employee satisfaction and loyalty.

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The Surprising Truth About Compensation and Satisfaction

As I’m sure other HR professionals will confirm, enhancing salaries or benefits often fails to address the core issues. A temporary boost in compensation might lift spirits momentarily, but it’s a short-term fix.  An HBR article and study illustrate, “the association between salary and job satisfaction is very weak… indicating that satisfaction with salary is mostly independent of the actual salary.”


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Indeed, fair and equitable pay is necessary for the role. Yet, the heart of the matter lies deeper within an organization’s culture. If the environment suffers from a lack of trust, poor communication, or absence of respect, no amount of money can mend these issues. What employees truly seek is a workplace that values their efforts, respects their contributions, and supports their growth. Focusing solely on financial rewards is like applying a band-aid to a wound that requires more thorough treatment. It’s crucial to understand that sustainable employee satisfaction and retention begin with the core of the organization, not its wallet.

Aligning Compensation with Culture

Culture should guide your compensation programs, not the other way around. Aligning culture with the compensation program is a delicate balance, where every step should reflect the company’s core values and goals. I’ve learned that when compensation reflects the culture we aim to foster, it becomes more than a financial incentive—it’s a declaration of our values. For instance, in companies that value innovation, rewarding employees for creativity and risk-taking can advance cultural objectives. This alignment is vital because it clearly communicates to employees which behaviors are valued and encouraged. I’ve been involved in designing compensation strategies that achieve this, acting as an extension of our culture and confirming that we are united in our objectives. This method transforms compensation from a simple transaction into a significant tool for cultural reinforcement, proving that our values are not just words—we embody them, even in how we compensate our team.

When designing your compensation programs, consider first what motivates them. How does our culture contribute? How are we ensuring our compensation efforts reflect our culture rather than contradict it? If your culture remains undefined, seize the opportunity to articulate it before proceeding. At The Wellness Value, we can assist in identifying your turnover challenges, defining or redefining your culture, and developing a compensation strategy that aligns with your desired culture. While this approach may take more time, being intentional about your structure will positively impact your retention rates.


Michelle Strasburger has dedicated over two decades to advancing Human Resources (HR) and wellness in the workplace. As the CEO and Chief Consultant of The Wellness Value, LLC, she focuses on transforming companies’ people strategies as a fractional Chief Human Resources Officer and consultant. Her wealth of experience encompasses progressive HR roles in small, medium, Fortune 500, and start-up businesses, and her passion for putting people first shines through in everything she does.