John Klossner

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Pay-for-performance: A modester proposal

"If the [National Security Personnel System] were allowed to operate unfettered by the taint of human interaction, then it might be the "an honest dollar for an honest day's work" operation it aspires to be."

"Hiring and advancement are primarily a function of ‘popularity and favors,’ not job performance."

"...It does not pay to do the extra, let someone else pick up the slack, get certifications, and think ahead. It would be nice if, just once, I was rated on my WORK and not the budget."

"Under that system the big bosses gave each other thousands of dollars in bonuses and the rank and file got a couple hundred dollar salary boost for a YEAR."

"I have found that work performance does not motivate employees at all. the ones who actually do the work do not get rewarded."

These are not lines from characters in a new reality show ("Survivor Fed," this fall on CBS, right after "Dexter.") No, these are taken from various comments sections in articles and columns on the demise of the National Security Personnel System, a program brought to life in 2004 with hopes of creating pay-for-performance compensation in the federal workplace. As you may have heard, it didn't do so well.

I have to admit, on one level, I'm impressed with the knowledge employees have of the inner workings of their offices. Their ability to recite fellow employees' salaries, management spending decisions and co-workers' working habits show a keen awareness of the details within their respective agencies. But, to go back to my earlier thought, put these folks in shared housing with minimal clothing, free alcohol, and a Jacuzzi and you've got an MTV show.

Of course, there are some satisfied employees:

"I must be one of the few that did well under NSPS. I got a good bonus and a nice raise. I'm also divorced and all my kids are grown. What has that got to do with anything? I can focus on work and put in a lot of hours. Many without comp time. I think that NSPS can work, but it takes great writing skills by your supervisor and too many of them lack that skill. I also think that many people don't understand that there are a lot of folks like me in any organization that really do perform a lot more work than the average worker; not just a little more."

See? All you have to do to make the system work for you is terminate your family life and live at the office.

Just what is going on here? And how do so many of these hard-working employees have time to write comments?

Is it possible to create "fair" compensation? For starters, I would contend that a "fair" compensation system is like the holy grail, perfect love, or the Redskins' playoff chances -- it exists more in hope than in reality. I propose the term "fairer" compensation. But how to create a system that motivates employees, rewards excellence in performance, doesn't lead to resentment, and doesn't break budget parameters? I think I have such a system in my workplace, but I'm self-employed. (Even then, some days I just don't get along with myself.)

Or, more accurately, maybe we should be calling this a "compensation system that is closer in scale to the private sector." There are some who think the private sector offers a much better chance of fair compensation. Maybe so, but anyone who has ever worked at a business with "and Sons" in the title can give you a different perspective.

I don't mean to paint a one-sided picture. There are/were fans of the system. As one commenter put it:

"Pay for performance is a great idea and has mostly worked. Is there some cronyism? Of course, It also exists under the GS system in who gets promotions... The human element is always going to be present."

This reader/writer has put a finger on the problem:

I think everyone shares the goal of creating a compensation system that rewards individual employees fairly for the work they've done. And I would think that everyone feels that a pay-for-performance system is created with the best intentions, and not with underlying purposes of redirecting money to a select few. So, if we agree that the system was designed with the best intentions, then we have to focus our attention on the real roadblock: The people.

If there were some way to remove the disgruntled employees, the confused managers, the slacking co-workers and the cronies -- not to mention those with the potential to become disgruntled, confused or crony-esque -- then pay-for performance might work. If the system were allowed to operate unfettered by the taint of human interaction, then it might be the "an honest dollar for an honest day's work" operation it aspires to. If we can let this compensation program do the job it was designed for without having to deal with the ticky-tack foibles that the personnel bring to the table, then it will have a chance.

Somewhere, someway, someone will create that people-free office that offers fair compensation for all. Maybe we'll be allowed to look in the windows.

Posted by John Klossner on Dec 18, 2009 at 12:19 PM


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