Working to tight timeframes and budgets helps to focus a benefits strategy, says Melanie Morris, head of reward and performance management at Abbey
Stints at a string of blue-chip companies, including Xerox, Kraft and BT, have equipped Melanie Morris with the necessary skills to face one of the biggest challenges of her career. As head of reward and performance management at Abbey, she has been given the opportunity “to turn the reward strategy around and do something different” at the bank, which is in the midst of a period of change following its takeover by Spanish banking giant Santander in 2004.
This challenge helped persuade Morris just over a year ago to join Abbey, which is now increasing its focus on customer care. “Working with companies like Kraft and BT, often things were very much in place. Because they are well-established firms, you are just making things tick along or introducing a few new perks.”
Working for the bank also means she is back in a global organisation with the cultural diversity that brings – a factor she missed when she moved from Kraft (where she had been an expatriate manager before taking on compensation and benefits roles) to BT. At the telecoms firm, she was head of reward for its wholesale division before switching to be head of HR for wholesale markets. The latest move to Abbey means Morris is back working in compensation and benefits – her first love.
After graduating from Nottingham Trent University with a business studies degree, Morris was offered a compensation and benefits role as a development opportunity at Xerox. “I was quite young to get into compensation and benefits, but within six months of being in it I had fallen in love with it. It’s my favourite bit of HR. I have done a lot of HR roles and I always seem to come back to compensation and benefits.”
It is not an easy ride, however, as compensation and benefits is a discipline that is subject to cost constraints. Furthermore, the financial services sector in general is in the middle of a global credit shortage and is tightening its belt. “I can come up with some fantastic things we can do that are cutting edge, but we haven’t got an infinite pot of money to spend. So the real key challenge is finding things that are going to better reward our staff and give us some sort of unique selling position to attract new staff, all within the cost constraints of funding reward.”
This means finding something that makes working for Abbey different compared with rival banks and high street retailers. While developing the “employee value proposition” at Abbey is a long-term HR goal, in the short-term, Morris has had to demonstrate that the bank is listening to employee feedback on benefits. Abbey has just launched a new mortgage and credit card for staff as well as discounted shopping vouchers to spend at retailers such as John Lewis, and Marks & Spencer. It also recently introduced a holiday pay fund scheme enabling both Abbey and employees to save on national insurance contributions for salary paid during the holiday. However, given the decision in last month’s pre-Budget report to axe the scheme, savings have only been short-term. Staff have also been granted 100 free shares each through a share incentive plan to celebrate the 150th birthday of Santander this year following a similar award made on the Santander merger.
Morris is proud of the fact that the changes provide some benefit to employees and also support the business. Although Morris values HR and business theory, having studied for a postgraduate diploma in HR management, she says: “The theory is everywhere and you can network easily, but the hardest bit is making sure you understand your own business and what its needs are.”
2006 to present head of reward and performance at Abbey.
2003-6 head of reward for wholesale division at BT, then head of HR for wholesale markets.
1999-2003 expatriate manager at Kraft, followed by compensation and benefits roles.
1994-1999 comp and bens roles at Xerox.
- What is your favourite benefit? I think it’s got to be the discounted shopping vouchers. I was looking to buy some white goods from John Lewis anyway and now I get a 7% discount. How fab is that? n How would you describe yourself? I am a very passionate individual so I get very excited, sadly, about reward, and compensation and benefits. I want other people to be passionate about it so I like that to rub off on people.
- What challenges do compensation and benefits professionals face? Finding something that makes you different to every other employer and offers flexibility in benefits, but is also within budget.
- What tips would you pass on? In order to do well you have to have an open mind. I’ve watched other people be quite defensive of what they do and I think that you have to take criticism and feedback on the chin and focus on what you need to do. Also, listen to your business. Anything you do is completely irrelevant if your business doesn’t support it.