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Compensation systems: the dilemmas of practice

2.08.2011

A body of experience, research and theory has been developed about how money satisfies and motivates employees. Virtually every study on the importance of pay compared with other potential rewards has shown that pay is important. It consistently ranks among the top five rewards. The importance of pay and other rewards, however, is affected by many factors. Money, for example, is likely to be viewed differently at various points in one #8217;s career, because the need for money versus other rewards (status, growth, security, and so forth) changes at each stage. National culture is another important factor. American managers and employees apparently emphasize pay for individual performance more than do their European or Japanese counterparts. European and Japanese companies, however, rely more on slow promotions and seniority as well as some degree of employment security. Even within a single culture, shifting national forces may alter people #8217;s needs for money versus other rewards.


Companies have developed various compensation systems and practices to achieve pay satisfaction and motivation. In manufacturing firms, payroll costs can run as high as 40% of sales revenues, whereas in service organisations payroll costs can top 70%. General managers, therefore, take an understandable interest in payroll costs and how this money is spent.


The traditional view of managers and compensation specialists is that if the right system can be developed, it will solve most problems. This is not a plausible assumption, because, there is no one right answer or objective solution to what or how someone should be paid. What people will accept, be motivated by, or perceive as fair is highly subjective. Pay is a matter of perceptions and values that often generate conflict.


Management #8217;s influence on attitudes toward money


Many organisations are caught up in a vicious cycle that they partly create. Firms often emphasize compensation levels and a belief in individual pay for performance in their recruitment and internal communications. This is likely to attract people with high needs for money as well as to heighten that need in those already employed. Thus, the meaning employees attach to money is partly shaped by management #8217;s views. If merit increases, bonuses, stock options, and perquisites are held out as valued symbols of recognition and success, employees will come to see them in this light even more than they might have perceived them at first. Having heightened money #8217;s importance as a reward, management must then respond to employees who may demand more money or better pay-for-performance systems.


Firms must establish a philosophy about rewards and the role of pay in the mix of rewards. Without such a philosophy, the compensation practices that happen to be in place, for the reasons already stated, will continue to shape employees #8217; satisfactions, and those expectations will sustain the existing practices. If money has been emphasized as an important symbol of success, that emphasis will continue even though a compensation system with a slightly different emphasis might have equal motivational value with fewer administrative problems and perhaps even lower cost. Money is important, but its degree of importance is influenced by the type of compensation system and philosophy that management adopts.


Pay for performance


Some reasons why organisations pay their employees for performance are as follows: under the right conditions, a pay-for-performance system can motivate desired behaviour.


A pay-for-performance system can help attract and keep achievement-oriented individuals.


A pay-for-performance system can help to retain good performers while discouraging the poor performers.


In the US, at least, many employees, both managers and workers, prefer a pay-for-performance system, although white-collar workers are significantly more supportive of the notion than blue-collar workers.


But there is a gap, and the evidence indicates a wide gap, between the desire to devise a pay-for-performance system and the ability to make such a system work.


The most important distinction among various pay-for-performance systems is the level of aggregation at which performance is defined – individual, group, and organizationwide. Several pay-for-performance systems are summarised in the exhibit that follows.


Individual performance


Group performance


Organizationwide performance


Merit system Piece rate Executive bonus


Productivity incentive Cost effectiveness


Profit sharing Productivity-sharing Historically, pay for performance has meant pay for individual performance. Piece-rate incentive systems for production employees and merit salary increases or bonus plans for salaried employees have been the dominant means of paying for performance. In the last decade, piece-rate incentive systems have dramatically declined because managers have discovered that such systems result in dysfunctional behaviour, such as low co-operation, artificial limits on production and resistance to changing standards. Similarly, more questions are being asked about individual bonus plans for executives as top managers discovered their negative effects.


Meanwhile, organizationwide incentive systems are becoming more popular, particularly because managers are finding that they foster co-operation, which leads to productivity and innovation. To succeed, however, these plans require certain conditions. A review of the key considerations for designing a pay-for-performance plan and a discussion of the problems that arise when these considerations are not observed follow.


Individual pay for performance. The design of an individual pay-for performance system requires an analysis of the task. Does the individual have control over the performance (result) that is to be measured? Is there a significant effort-to-performance relationship? For motivational reasons already discussed such a relationship must exist. Unfortunately, many individual bonus, commission, or piece-rate incentive plans fall short in meeting this requirement. An individual may not have control over a performance result, such as sales or profit, because that result is affected by economic cycles or competitive forces beyond his or her control. Indeed, there are few outcomes in complex organisations that are not dependent on other functions or individuals, fewer still that are not subject to external factors.


Choosing an appropriate measure of performance on which to base pay is a related problem incurred by individual bonus plans. For reasons discussed earlier, effectiveness on a job can include many facets not captured by cost, units produced, or sales revenues. Failure to include all activities that are important for effectiveness can lead to negative consequences. For example, sales personnel who receive a bonus for sales volume may push unneeded products, thus damaging long-term customer relations, or they may push an unprofitable mix of products just to increase volume. These same salespeople may also take orders and make commitments that cannot be met by manufacturing. Instead, why not hold salespeople responsible for profits, a more inclusive measure of performance? The obvious problem with this measure is that sales personnel do not have control over profits.


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