Seasonal Compensation

(Jingle, jingle, jingle) – “You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m tellin’ you why – Santa Claus is coming to town.”

Man, did we get mileage out of that when our five kids were little! From Thanksgiving right through Christmas Eve, if they weren’t always angels, they usually tried. Even when they got into their teens, they retained some sense that their behavior could impact the quality or the quantity of their Christmas experience.

Beth, Dave, Katie, Will, and Chuck, now that most of you are parents, let me share a secret with you – it didn’t make any difference! But it sure improved the four-week, pre-Christmas experience for your mother and me, just as it likely has for generations of parents. In fact, if I were to go back far enough (!), that jingle probably represents my first conscious experience with behavior modification (mine!).

I thought of this last week in an extended conversation with the senior managers of one of my clients around the subject of a Christmas (year-end) bonus. For the first time in a decade, last year (2010) the company recorded a loss in the face of a tough year for the industry. Everyone knew it, so there was no sense trying to paper it over with even a token gift while people (a few) were being laid off.

This year was better than last – modestly profitable, but not exciting. The management team agreed that most of the employees hadn’t really been challenged, nor had they challenged themselves. Thus, any kind of after-the-fact, incremental compensation would have rewarded behavior that needs to change if the company is to achieve its higher 2012 goals.

But what of the employees’ expectations? “I’ve done everything they’ve asked of me and never given them any trouble,” one might say. “Wouldn’t you think they could at least show some appreciation?”

In fact, the management team decided that in addition to the holiday party, some recognition was appropriate, in this case a gift certificate. However, in responding this way, the managers agreed as well that they were not making a statement about company incentives or rewards. It was simply a nice gesture to avoid Scrooge-like references.

In planning for 2012, on the other hand, they decided to take a new approach. In an economic environment of persistently high unemployment, they recognized that a primary concern for many employees is job security. And the counter to insecurity is job training and education within the company’s day-to-day operations. For next year, in addition to requiring that everyone develop personal goals that are meaningful, measureable, specific, realistic, and achievable, the managers also mandated that the staff members each come up with a set of objectives for individual learning. This professional development will include internal and external training, project team work, job shadowing across functions, and agreed-on enhancement of job skills.

With an empowered work force expected to exercise independent judgment and initiative, my client has determined that it no longer seems appropriate to tell employees day after day what to do. In fact, the greater challenge for both managers and staff is to encourage people to manage themselves and to expand their individual skills and knowledge, acquiring marketable talents even after multiple years on the job.

Wrapping this new approach around the company’s revised and purposeful vision statement going into the New Year, it was thus resolved by the management team:

  1. To incorporate individual goal-setting in the performance appraisal process and to provide for self-reporting of progress by each employee.
  1. To eliminate the flat, across-the-board pay raise in favor of budgeting for increased compensation based on the Company’s profitability, with allocations based on individual achievement of goals.
  1. To provide multiple opportunities for employees to acquire new skills and to cross-train in other functional specialties.
  1. To communicate the new strategy before the old year is out, setting expectations that personal output and attitude will make a financial difference, to the company and the individual.

In the meantime, I don’t have to rummage for that original Bing Crosby on 78 rpm, or even the Supremes on 33s, in order to pass the “Better not shout…” lesson on to our next generation of Andrew, Noah, Jack, Emma, Abby, and Brooke. Turns out that the latest to record it is Justin Bieber, and I’ll bet you kids didn’t think that I even knew the name!