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HR Executive and Staff Pay Rose During the Pandemic

Women hold a majority of HR executive roles at the biggest U.S. companies

A woman holding up a check in an office.

New studies highlight changes to compensation for HR executives and staff, as well as the ways in which the pandemic has changed how HR professionals work and the challenges they face.

HR Executive Pay Trends, published in October by Equilar, a research firm that tracks data on corporate leaders, analyzes compensation for HR executives at the 500 largest (by revenue) publicly traded U.S. companies.

"As concurrent trends in corporate employment have led to ascending roles and responsibilities, HR executives have been compensated accordingly," wrote study author Dan Marcec, Atlanta-based senior editor at Equilar.

HR executive compensation is on a steady rise, according to the report. Median total compensation for HR executive roles at the largest 500 companies increased 6 percent over the past fiscal year, up from $1.9 million to $2 million in 2021, taking into account base salaries and incentive awards, including stock grants, but excluding pensions, deferred compensation and perquisites.

Among the 500 largest U.S. companies:

  • Companies with more than $50 billion in revenues awarded $3.3 million at the median to their HR executives in 2021, up from $3.1 million in 2021.
  • Companies with less than $10 billion in revenues (but still among the 500 largest) awarded $1.5 million at the median, up from 1.4 million.

Performance awards are the most common pay component, and performance equity accounted for at least one-quarter and up to one-third of the average HR executive pay package.

Women Take the Lead

"Given the importance of workforce and human capital issues in corporate society right now, it's noteworthy that HR executive roles are heavily dominated by women, both from a numbers standpoint and in terms of how much they're paid," Marcec noted.

For instance, Equilar's survey found that:

  • From 2020 to 2021, the share of women in HR executive roles jumped from 59 percent to about 75 percent at the largest U.S. companies by revenue.
  • Just five years ago, in 2017, 42 percent of HR executive roles were held by women.
  • The chief HR officer (CHRO) role is also the only C-suite role in which women hold a majority of positions.

In 2021, female CHROs earned a median pay package of $3 million versus $1.6 million for men, Equilar found. "That gap has been growing wider by the year," Marcec noted. "While pay scales can reflect many different factors, this trend most likely indicates that women are the leaders in the largest HR departments and perhaps hold the roles with the highest proportion of these increasing responsibilities."

Pay for HR Positions

While the above findings highlight compensation for C-suite CHROs at the biggest U.S. companies, the pay for most HR professionals is much more down to earth, as shown by projected starting salary ranges for HR positions published in September by staffing firm Robert Half.

Information in the firm's 2022 Salary Guide is based on data from job placements managed by Robert Half teams throughout the U.S., plus additional survey questions fielded from March 26 to April 15, 2021, with responses from more than 2,800 workers across the U.S.

While the online guide allows for location-based searches, the figures below reflect pay levels for new hires throughout the U.S.

How HR Work Has Changed

Robert Half survey questions were fielded to executives, senior managers and employees from organizations with at least 20 employees up to the largest corporations, both private and publicly traded. The responses showed that the pandemic also has changed how HR professionals work:

  • 69 percent of HR managers are working remotely at least some of the time, as HR employees frequently demand a hybrid work schedule.
  • 53 percent of hiring managers are offering signing bonuses for new HR employees.
  • 44 percent of companies plan to outsource recruiting duties.
  • 41 percent of HR personnel said they're more burned out now than they were a year ago.

Among the conclusions drawn by the firm's analysts:

  • Workloads for HR teams skyrocketed during the pandemic and are expected to increase further as employees return to the office.
  • As many companies transition to a hybrid workforce model, they seek HR professionals to help them update company policies and procedures, along with health and safety programs.
  • Companies that need additional HR help are seeking both contract and permanent professionals.
  • Skilled HR candidates can be scarce, meaning employers must act quickly and offer more than their competitors in terms of pay and benefits.

The survey also highlighted that new skills are needed among HR staff:

  • Many HR professionals now have hybrid job responsibilities that include administrative and payroll duties.
  • HR job seekers with experience in these areas may have an edge over the competition.

"Job openings are at a record high, and workers with in-demand skills have more negotiating power," said Robert Half senior executive director Paul McDonald. 

"While salary prospects are brighter for 2022, professionals should always do their research before asking for a raise or jumping for an opportunity with higher pay," McDonald advised. "Many factors contribute to job satisfaction, such as advancement opportunities and schedule flexibility, so it's important to consider the full picture before making a move."


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