Interview with Paul Bissell, head of reward at Nationwide Building Society

nic PatonPaul Bissell, head of reward at Nationwide Building Society, believes simplicity is the key to a successful reward plan, as long as it is communicated well

A number of reward professionals find they never intended to work in the field but instead migrated into it from a variety of directions. Paul Bissell, head of reward at Nationwide Building Society, is no exception. “I started off in pay and moved into reward more by accident than design,” he says.

Having worked for the building society for his whole career, Bissell entered HR in the late 1980s, after a stint in branch management. He initially held training and generalist positions, before moving over to reward and becoming rewards consultant in 1998. “At the time, I was not a reward specialist, but I have quite a creative personality and thought I would give it a go,” he says.

Bissell was subsequently appointed head of reward in 2001. He believes it is beneficial for reward professionals to have experienced a range of functions within an organisation. “What employers look for in reward personnel these days is quite composite. They need to be part accountant, part communicator, part problem solver and part HR professional. It should be quite a mix really,” he explains.

Bissell’s first task as head of reward was to design a new pay structure for the building society. He considers this as one of his main achievements, and is set to repeat the exercise this year.

Another of Bissell’s achievements is Nationwide’s online integrated reward platform, Fruitful. This enables staff to view their total remuneration statements, access voluntary perks and select their flexible benefits. “This is something that I had a vision of doing many years before we were able to realise it,” he explains.

But Bissell has never been one to follow the crowd. “With benefits, best fit for our firm is always better than best practice. Best practice only tells you what everyone else is doing. The awards we have won [for our benefits] are the result of creativity and not doing what everyone else does,” he says.

As he has built up his expertise in reward, Bissell has learned that the key to a successful reward strategy is to keep things simple and to remember effective communication can make or break a benefits plan. He explains that it can be easy for HR professionals to concentrate on the design and implementation of a benefits scheme but not give equal attention to monitoring the outcome. “If a benefit is not valued by employees, it is, to a degree, a waste of money. Considering staff costs make up a large proportion of the running costs of a business, if employees don’t understand the value of benefits, the employer is failing their business and more importantly they may be failing their staff as well,” he says.

At Nationwide, the reward team is currently working to increase take-up of childcare vouchers offered through its flexible benefits scheme. “People who take up childcare vouchers really value the option, but the number of people who use the benefit is nothing compared to the number of employees who have children in childcare. We are putting in a lot of effort into trying to raise awareness of how worthwhile childcare vouchers are,” says Bissell.

He adds that one of the biggest challenges for reward professionals at the moment is to justify the cost of implementing benefits. “If you want to change a reward scheme, you always have to justify it. All our work has a pound sign hanging over it. Reward experts must remember to use all the weapons in their armoury, like total reward statements, to make reward cost effective for business while improving perspective value for staff. That is the challenge.”†

Curriculum Vitae

2001-present Nationwide Building Society – head of reward†

1998-2001 Nationwide Building Society – rewards consultant†

1996-1998 Nationwide Building Society – senior HR consultant†

1994-1996 Nationwide Building Society – specialist consultant in HR strategic planning and information†

1992-1994 Nationwide – HR consultant†

1987-1992 Nationwide – training role†

1975-1987 Nationwide – variety of branch management posts†


• What is your favourite benefit?†

I think holidays are the most important benefit. Holiday trading gives an indication of this. People are prepared to sacrifice their salary in order to have more leisure time.

• What tips would you pass on to others?†

You should not assume that staff are one homogeneous group. An employer is marketing a job to employees, so, like a marketeer, they should segment staff to find out what they truly want from their benefits. Employers need to ascertain what each type of employee wants in order to engage everybody.

• What does a typical day involve?†

My days are quite varied. I have been working on directives on executive remuneration and benefits policy. I think I am slightly unusual in the breadth of what I do. A lot of people would just concentrate on pay and bonuses but I work a lot on organisational design and focus on changes in our business. I think reward professionals should understand the jobs in the business in order to tailor reward.