Tough Conversations for Equity: Discussing Salary and Benefits at REACH


This is Part One of a three-part series written by REACH’s Associate Executive Director Deborah Heimel. Deb has worked at REACH for 14 years and manages the internal operations of the organization including human resource management responsibilities such as hiring and onboarding new staff members, administering paid time off benefits and medical insurance benefits, and managing payroll. In spring of 2019, Deb led a process with board and staff members to discuss and propose changes to our compensation and paid time off benefits. This is how we got there and how it went.

We just finished an amazingly beautiful and exhausting four months of conversation and work about compensation and benefits. Why did we do this? Because it was in the strategic plan. Why is it in the strategic plan? Because social justice starts with us.

Our new strategic plan was completed in 2018. One of the priority areas is titled Staffing Resources and states in part “At REACH, we believe that caring for one another is part of the change we want to see in the world. Promoting wellbeing helps sustain us – as does a living wage, growth opportunities, work/life balance, and benefits that enable joy in our lives. We believe in doing high quality work and understand that valuing our staff and volunteers and creating a supportive culture for them is essential to the sustainability and wellbeing of REACH.

We identified this priority area because we know that advocating for sustainable compensation and benefits is social justice work.

It is about dismantling systems of control and oppression that create and perpetuate poverty.

We understand that inadequate compensation is a racial and gender equity issue.

We believe that we must offer our staff a truly livable wage and a physically and emotionally sustainable workplace. We must create a culture of respect and care that flows into our work with survivors, community partners and donors. The staff and volunteers and people of REACH are the essence of who we are. We need to be intentional about working to better attract and retain staff and this was one way to hold ourselves accountable to this goal.

I advocated for this goal to be in the strategic plan. I believe in the Why we should do it. I knew the conversations were coming and it still felt overwhelming to address it all.

Fortunately, the first steps were not mine to do alone. We started this work in the summer of 2018 with a team of six consultants from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Management and Social Policy. The first steps were for this team to do an external scan of other organizations and an internal scan to gather information from the staff. The Heller team did their work through the lens of racial equity and social justice, which inspired questions like What does internal pay equity look like? It was an eye-opening process.

The title slide from their final presentation says it all: Centering equity and collaboration through human resource systems and structures that support individual and organizational long-term sustainability.

From these conversations and research, the Heller team had several recommendations for us as an organization. First, create a compensation philosophy. Identify a compensation structure and salary ranges for each position and then adjust salaries accordingly. And since paid time off benefits are also meaningful to staff, look at what we currently offer and identify areas for change.

So we did.

This past spring, we created an ad hoc Human Resources Committee to review compensation and paid time off benefits at REACH. The committee was gathered with an open invitation to all staff and board members. Three board members joined eleven staff members – including the six directors. This was about 50% of the fulltime staff and 25% of the board.

Over the course of six meetings, the committee was tasked with discussing the findings from the Heller team, identifying places for improvement, and crafting a compensation and benefits proposal for review and approval by the board of directors. The committee may seem large, but it was a tremendous benefit to have the array of professional and personal experiences to draw from. This diversity of perspective was essential to the conversation.

One colleague put it this way “We were given a unique opportunity to really learn about how HR works and to hear perspectives from experts in the field. As a staff person at REACH, it was super interesting to learn about all the logistics that are behind planning for compensation and benefits. I thought about things in a way I never had before and I was grateful to be a part of this process. Everyone’s opinions were valued and heard and there was space for every voice, regardless of your expertise (or lack thereof).”

As a group, we embodied the importance of considering both the means and the ends of any decision making process. We relied on the Results – Process – Relationship triangle identified by colleagues at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. Success in collaborative efforts is a multi-dimensional affair, not solely defined by “results” (goal or task accomplished), but also by “process” (the way or spirit in which work is carried out) and by “relationship” (the quality of the connections between the people engaged in the work).

In the committee work, we discussed many challenging topics. What does it mean to offer benefits that are sustainable to REACH and to the employee? What is the financial cost of vacation time vs the cost of turnover vs the cost of work not being done? We talked about how to acknowledge the market and world we live in and also know that our work is about changing social norms. We talked about racial inequity and the systems in which we participate.

How did these conversations go and what did we decide? Read on in Part Two for more about this work.