Should Pay Be a Part of the Employee Engagement Conversation?

Kyla Holcombe, Ph.D., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistEmployee Engagement, NewsLeave a Comment

should pay be part of your engagement strategy?
Do you ask questions about compensation on your employee engagement survey? If so, you may want to reconsider. Our research (and loads of others’) suggests that compensation is important for recruiting high quality candidates, securing job offers, and nudging people to pursue promotions (Cable, 2013). Pay does not, however, drive employee engagement. So if it’s engagement that you’re interested in, it may be unnecessary to ask about pay on your next engagement survey.

Reconsider Asking About Pay on your Engagement Survey

The topic of compensation often arises when discussing what questions to ask on an employee engagement survey. For many leaders and HR professionals, it is natural to equate motivation or morale to perceptions of pay. After all, pay is one way to communicate that an employee is valued.

However, before deciding that pay is an important topic to address in an engagement survey, we encourage clients to think through the following:

  • What insights about employees’ daily engagement can you gain by asking questions about compensation?

  • Are you able or willing to make changes to compensation if you uncover dissatisfaction? If not, it may be more harmful to inquire about pay and do nothing in response to employees’ feedback than avoid asking the questions in the first place.

  • Why do you expect pay to influence engagement? Is it about being competitive? Fairness and transparency? Linking compensation to performance? Pinpointing what about pay may influence engagement can inform the types of questions we should ask, i.e., rather than general satisfaction with pay. For example, rather than asking about pay levels, you may want to understand if employees feel that strong performance is rewarded.

  • Have you recently made changes to compensation programs? If so, it may be appropriate to include questions about pay on an engagement survey, but more importantly, also questions about perceived fairness, communication, and information sharing.

So why the push-back? What’s wrong with asking about pay on an engagement survey? There is nothing wrong , per se, about including compensation questions on an engagement survey. However, these questions may distract from the real drivers of engagement. Pay is an activator – it attracts good applicants and sweetens job offers to get the best people in the door – but we seldom find that pay drives employee engagement. Rather than focus on pay on your next engagement survey, consider going deeper into topics like professional development, supervisor relationships, communication from leadership, or positive working conditions.

Why We think Pay Influences Engagement

One reason organizations believe that pay is critical for engagement is because employees tell them so. When asked open-ended questions like, “What would improve your engagement in your daily work?” employees frequently mention pay. This is not surprising, as most people wouldn’t mind being paid a bit more. However, employees often fail to understand what really impacts their daily experiences at work. In fact, employees’ perceptions about pay typically don’t mirror reality; in a study of over 70,000 people, only about 20% of employees who were actually paid above market value believed they were paid above market value (35% believed they were paid less; bambooHR, 2017).

Recognition, opportunities to provide feedback, and respect are also ways to convey value for employees. A more impactful way to demonstrate appreciation and impact engagement is by providing frequent recognition and feedback, autonomy, and opportunities for learning and growth. These actions tend to influence engagement more than compensation because they can be experienced daily and can be done in direct response to performance (vs. opportunities for pay increases, which only happen periodically). It is our daily interactions and sense of meaningful work that contribute the most to how we think about our employment.

Reframing the Conversation

If we dig deeper into employee concerns about compensation, especially related to their engagement, feeling valued is likely at the root. Pay is one way to show value, but it is not the most powerful, or the one most likely in your control. Before you revamp your compensation structure or put pressure on managers to find money in the budget, consider other ways to demonstrate value for employees:

  1. Treating employees fairly and having transparency around pay, benefits, rewards, etc. is highly important for feeling valued. When there is perceived (or real) disparity, inequity, favoritism, or lack of understanding for how decisions are made, employees do not feel valued.

  2. People feel valued when their individual needs are acknowledged and met. Find ways to recognize employees in ways that are personally meaningful to them. Inquire about employees’ goals for the future and strategize ways to support them in the process. Identify specific strengths and present opportunities for employees to utilize those strengths.

  3. Find opportunities for employees to develop their skills. Investing in employees demonstrates your value for them and also increases their value to the organization. When employees desire career advancement opportunities, explain that opportunities come in many forms – formal ones like promotions and pay increases, but also informal ones like taking on a leadership role, being selected for a training program, or mentoring other employees. Help employees see that developing their skills is an important step in career progression, one that prepares them for the formal career moves they are striving for.

  4. Coach managers to have conversations about engagement. Managers may be operating under the same assumption, that pay leads to engagement, so coach them to probe deeper. Discuss different strategies for motivating, recognizing, and rewarding employees. Give managers resources and data to share with employees, so they can build understanding about compensation and why it’s not the complete solution to feeling engaged at work. Brainstorm open-ended questions with managers so they can learn more about employees’ strengths and interests, goals, and what makes them feel like valued members of the team.

When you, your managers, and your employees learn to transform a conversation about compensation into a holistic conversation about value, you can gain the real insights into employee experiences and engagement at work.


  • bambooHR. (2017). Everything you need to know about communicating pay . [eBook]. Retrieved from

  • Cable, D. M. (Ed.). The Oxford handbook of recruitment. Oxford University Press.​