Why COOs might Pass on a Free Compensation Survey

During the past six months I have been conducting a survey of law firm Chief Operating Officers, Executive Directors and equivalent roles. The outreach invited hundreds of them to take part in a quick, no-cost survey of compensation – a price, investment of time, and topic that should attract nearly everyone. Don’t we all want to know whether we are paid “fairly.”

But the response rate has been smallish. Why might that be? Here are plausible reasons why invitees might never open the email or pass on the opportunity if they do open it and read it. I am setting to the side the possibility that the firm or COO has blocked my email invitation.

  1. They don’t have time to fill out the survey questionnaire. My abiding belief is that people make time for whatever they value, so this is more an excuse than a reason. Sure, for periods of time a COO may be swamped, but if they cared about the data, they could carve out 10 minutes.

  2. They do not know or trust the survey sponsor. If they don’t know the person or organization who is soliciting personal or proprietary information, especially how well the sponsor will preserve the anonymity of what is shared, they will bin the invitation. Furthermore, we are all trained not to click on an unknown link, which makes the survey link problematic for those who have been invited to respond.

  3. They do not want to disclose such deeply personal information as salary. What you make is a closely guarded secret for many people, almost a taboo to discuss. “It’s none of your business, go away.”

  4. They don’t believe that the benchmark data will help them negotiate a raise or larger bonus. It may be that a lockstep compensation system holds sway. Or it may be that introducing external data to support a request for a raise will antagonize the Managing Partner or whatever committee of partners decides pay raises. Or comp decisions spawn in a black box that admits no input or appeal.

  5. They put off responding and then forget about the invitation. We all get busy, we put off taking action “until we have a few minutes to spare,” we are dragged into fire drills, or other issues distract us. The survey invitation gathers dust in the mailbox until it disappears and slips out of memory.

  6. They have recently completed (or are planning to complete) a comparable survey. Unless your orchestra is the only music in town, you might be considered second fiddle and not listened to. For years they have turned in the XYZ comp survey, so why should they pay attention to another one?

  7. They don’t want to be bombarded with marketing pitches from the sponsor. Once you profer your email address, you lose control of that vital piece of information. How many times the survey sponsor writes you, or whether they let that special “@” creature run free in the wild, you can’t control. For this reason, many law firm and law department lawyers use a secondary, personal email address, rather than their business address.

  8. Their employer prohibits responses to surveys without special permission. I have encountered such bans on responding to surveys sent to corporations. They do not want their employees revealing anything in a survey. Even if an executive in a law department or law firm could get the go-ahead, they might not want to trouble their boss with the request – particularly if the report that would be issued benefits only the requester, who wants to be paid more.

  9. The cost of the survey report is prohibitive. While it may be free to complete the survey, the sponsor may charge for the report. An executive summary may be a tease, with the real meat and detail in an expensive custom report or fulsome report.

  10. They may suspect they are quite well paid and don’t want to call attention to their being off the scale. You can’t know whether people who are satisfied with their situation turn away from a survey, or whether they eagerly take part to validate themselves. Like the person who owns the most expensive house on the block may not want to know comparables, so too a generously paid law firm administrative leader might not want to call attention to that largess.

  11. They take to heart the opening lines of the poem, “Desiderata.” “Do not compare yourself to others as it will only make you vain or bitter.” Sagacious as a precept, but awfully hard to follow in practice. We all harbor curiosity about how our earnings stack up against peers. Don’t we want to spy on other’s grades or evaluations?

  12. They feel it would be antagonistic to present “data” to the Managing Partner, Executive Committee or whoever decides on raises and bonuses. Furthermore, it might raise suspicions that the COO is dissatisfied and looking for a new position elsewhere. Also, if they were to present the data, whoever receives it may immediately question the objectivity of the data. Their first objection will be that the data is self-reported, so if anything it is likely to be inflated. Or perhaps your law firm has 60 lawyers and the data comes mostly from firms with more than 200 lawyers.

  13. They feel good about what they make, money doesn’t drive them, so why bother? OK, grant me at least the possibility that this reaction might lead a few people to skip the survey. The topic just doesn’t matter enough to them to invest the time.

  14. The report will arrive too late to be introduced into the deliberations of whoever decides the amount of the annual raise or the cash bonus. “Wish this survey had arrived sooner, or the report been issued sooner ….” If the survey missed the window of opportunity for the COO to influence his or her salary adjustment, then “I’ll wait for next year.""

Other reasons to dismiss a free, short compensation survey also contribute to lowish response rates, but this Baker’s Dozen plus One likely covers much of the terrain. I will add, as a note, that I have asked in the invitation email for anyone who declines to let me know why, but no one has chosen that courtesy.