The Coronavirus’s Impact on Pay

While one in four Chinese firms say they’re adjusting pay, experts believe the outbreak hasn’t hit most paychecks globally. Yet.

The coronavirus has dented the supply chains of large organizations, delayed projects around the world, and forced millions to work from home. But in the area of pay, it’s a far trickier impact that so far remains a moving target.

In a survey of Korn Ferry clients in China, where the tragic and business effects have been the strongest, one in four firms said they would make “special” salary adjustments in response to the epidemic. Another 36% said they are considering performance target adjustments. Outside China, experts say the effect has been much lower, but add they can’t predict how such areas as incentive pay—read bonuses—will play out.

In general, Michael Distefano, president of the Asia Pacific region for Korn Ferry, expects the impact to be more regional and culturally based. Some organizations in Asia will shift to a team-based approach to rewards, he says, essentially spreading out any pay or incentive pullbacks. “There’s a lot of discussion around how to manage performance targets going forward,” says Distefano. Firms in other parts of the world, meanwhile, will keep to more individualistic plans. “The important thing to remember is that one size doesn’t fit all,” he says.

To be sure, many multinationals are treating the outbreak in the same way they would any downturn in business, or even a mild recession, says Bob Wesselkamper, Korn Ferry’s vice chairman of Global Rewards and Benefits practice. There may be layoffs or hiring freezes, but usually not regular salary cuts. Large companies, of course, have long compensation-related policies that account for business disruptions. “The continuation of pay is what organizations are prepared to do,” says Wesselkamper. (The primary exception: firms in countries facing traumatic financial destabilization, such as when Argentina had a debt crisis in 2001.)

What will make organizations think about changing pay would be things like a predicted decline in earnings, material changes in consumer spending, even a monetary policy shift, he says. For now, it’s mostly a "wait-and-see" approach, he says. Firms haven’t, for the most part, changed metrics on stock-based plans or sales or growth incentives either, Wesselkamper says, adding that they’re waiting until at least the second quarter to even review, let alone make a change.

As with any crisis, of course, the virus is testing corporate leadership across the board. Following the September 11 attacks, Wesselkamper says, strong leaders were able to create a sense of shared purpose and community, even if the tragedy hurt the organizations in the short term.

For his part, Distefano believes some of the biggest leadership challenges will come after the outbreak subsides. He believes leaders and workers both must plan their strategies, talent, and compensation now for this post-crisis stage. “The greater the recovery, the quicker people can come back,” Distefano says.