Rewards, OD and passing the buck
“Compensation decisions are based entirely on the market and business situations. Our objective is to achieve the right balance between ‘need to pay’ which is based on the market scenario and the ‘ability to pay’ which is based on the company scenario”, said the rewards manager.
“Wouldn’t that make the Rewards function very transactional? Shouldn’t you look at the ‘want to pay’ aspect which is based on the overall people management philosophy of the organisation, in addition to the ‘need to pay’ and ability to pay aspects that you have mentioned?” asked the organisation development(OD) manager.
“We can’t create competitive advantage through compensation strategy as it can easily be copied. Hence, the compensation function has to be transactional and business oriented. While I agree that 'total rewards' is our approach, I am only the 'rewards manager'. Executing parts of the Total rewards framework that are not related to compensation and benefits should be the job of the OD function as it is the mandate of the OD function to build a deeper engagement with the employees.”, replied the rewards manager.
“OD function is also business aligned – it is not about charity and feel good initiatives. Creating deeper engagement with the organisation requires a multi-pronged approach and that includes rewards related dimensions also. Rewards are a very important tool to shape employee behavior. If our rewards strategy is only about ‘paying the employees the lowest compensation that we can get away with’, we are not only not leveraging the full potential of rewards, but also creating irreparable damage to the psychological contract between the employee and the employer. Managing the psychological contract is key to building deeper engagement with the employees”, said the OD Manager.
During the first few years of my career, I did a lot of HR consulting work related to Rewards – benchmarking, policies, benefits, compensation structuring, variable pay schemes, employee stock option plans, voluntary retirement schemes, job evaluation etc. Apart from developing functional expertise in the rewards domain, I also developed an affinity/feel for compensation related numbers. When I look at a data sheet with a lot of compensation related information it (say the compensation data from various companies/units), the figures 'talk to me' (i.e. the patterns in the data and the actionable inferences based on the same automatically pop up in my mind).
Later in my career, I gravitated towards OD, though I did get involved in Reward related matters when I have handled HR business partner roles. Anyway, rewards has remained close to my heart though I have been making a living mostly out of OD for the last ten years. Of late, I have been making an attempt to stand at the intersection of rewards and OD (Please see the six posts in the series on 'Salary negotiations and Psychological contract' for details). Also, I don’t miss any opportunity to interact with fellow rewards and OD Managers. The conversation at the beginning of this post is derived from those interactions.
My opinion is that both the rewards and OD managers here are 'correct' - from the point of view of their respective sub-functions. They are just articulating the mandates given to them. However, while being 'technically correct' they are also missing the essential point here! Please note that one can be 'completely correct' and 'completely irrelevant' at the same time!
During the last 15 years, in the context of organisations that I am familiar with, I have seen ‘compensation & benefits’ evolving into ‘rewards’ and then into ‘total rewards’. Similarly, I have seen OD evolving from ‘process OD’, to ‘process and structural OD’ and then to ‘organisation effectiveness’. That is where the 'trouble' begins. You see, when reward managers were just looking after compensation and benefits (providing 'money and goodies') and OD managers were just doing OD interventions (the kind where you get people into a room and facilitate collaboration, better decision making or creation of a shared vision) these domains did not have much in common and they required very different skill sets. Now if we look at the ‘total reward frameworks’ of many of the organisations, they will have dimensions like culture, learning opportunities, career development, empowerment, work environment etc.
Similarly, organisation effectiveness (OE) is essentially about enabling the organisation to achieve its goals by ensuring alignment between the various dimensions/components of the organisation and by facilitating positive change. This makes OE/OD more business aligned. This also calls for structural interventions (interventions at the structure, norms, policy & work process levels) in addition to interventions at the human process level. This creates an overlap between the reward and OD domains, especially when it comes to policies and reinforcement mechanisms to encourage and institutionalize particular actions/behaviors/changes.
When there is an overlap, there are three basic possibilities:
The first is that the parties find a way to work together effectively and help each other in the areas of overlap. Obviously, this leads to the best possible outcome.
The second possibility is that there is a war over territory and the winning party captures some or all of the overlapping area. While this is often a wasteful process, things usually get done (i.e. they don’t fall through the cracks).
The third possibility is that none of the parties take ownership for the overlapping area (and things fall through the cracks).
Unfortunately, when it comes to the overlap between rewards and OD, the third possibility is the one that often actualises! May be, rewards and OD Managers are basically ‘nice’ people who don’t want to step on the toes of others! So this creates a situation where the overlapping areas exist in the frameworks and power point presentations of both the parties but nothing much gets done!!! This is what leads to the ‘passing the buck’ phenomenon that this post talks about.
So, what should be done? The important thing here (apart from seeing to it that things don’t fall through the cracks) is to ensure that there is alignment between what rewards is driving and what OD is driving. For example, if OD is working on creating an emotional connect between the employer and the employee (that goes beyond rational commitment) and the rewards approach is that ‘compensation is purely a matter of supply and demand’, then it will send conflicting signals to the employees and also create a violation of the psychological contract.
Let us look at this in a bit more detail. The situation here can be traced back to fundamentals of the compensation philosophy of the organisation – does the organisation pay the employees based on what they deserve (within the constraints of what the organisation can afford) or does the organisation pay the employees as little as it can get away with? This comes into play in a situation where there is an industry downturn (making it difficult for the employees to change jobs) but the particular organisation is doing well (growing reasonably fast with healthy profits). In such a scenario, the organisation can afford to give the employees good salary hikes. But it can choose not to do so (or choose to give a very low salary hike) because even without the salary hike it can retain the employees.
This certainly provides short term gains. It can also be explained away in terms of salaries being market benchmarked. However, this will violate the psychological contract and will lead to a situation in which the employees (especially very valuable employees) leave the organisation as soon as the job market improves (Going by the same logic that the organisation had used, the employees should leave the organisation when the market will pay more!!).
A similar situation occurs in the case of hiring also. When the company hires a person (internal or external hire) into a job what salary will be offered? Will the company offer the lowest salary that the candidate will accept or will it offer the salary corresponding to the worth of the job in the company? These are the situations where the 'want to pay' aspect comes in. If the company drives a hard bargain because the employee was not in position to negotiate at that time, no amount of talk later about ‘employees being the biggest asset’ and ‘building a great organisation together’ will undo the damage that happened earlier because of the loss of trust. Some of the IT organisations in India have learned this lesson the hard way!
At the core, people management (of which rewards and OD are parts) is about understanding, predicting and influencing human behavior. Now, 'human motivation' is a complex phenomenon. Complex phenomena are usually 'over determined' - that is they have multiple (interrelated) causal/input factors. Some of these factors are in the OD domain and some of the factors are in the Rewards domain. Hence an integrated approach combining Rewards and OD is required. For example, the recent research findings in behavioral economics have created serious doubts on whether many of the performance linked pay schemes have any positive impact on performance. Hence, a combined effort from rewards and OD is required to ensure a positive return on investment (in monetary and non-monetary terms) from such schemes. Otherwise, such schemes will just be ‘tools to match the payout with the ability to pay' - without any useful impact on performance levels. In a way, our problem (Rewards and OD working in silos) has similarities with ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’ (see ‘HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder’ for details).
The most important thing in such a scenario is to get the two parts of the personality (Rewards and OD in this case) to talk to each other. This is not something that can be accomplished in one big meeting. This involves a different way of looking at things and joint exploration and solution design.
One approach to make this happen is to get the Rewards and OD teams to work together in crystallizing, articulating and delivering (in terms of specific HR processes and initiatives) the employee value proposition (EVP) of the organisation. EVPs (that specifies the total employee deal offered by the organisation) usually have both Rewards and OD related components and the EVP should inform both the OD and Rewards strategy of the organisation. Also, jointly thinking through the implementation details of the various initiatives to deliver the EVP will help professionals in the Rewards and OD sub-functions to develop a better appreciation of challenges the other sub-function is facing. For example, it is very easy for OD managers to talk about 'correcting the salaries' or about 'standardizing benefits'. Similarly, it is very easy for rewards managers to talk about 'changing the culture' or about 'creating intrinsic motivation by providing employees opportunities for self-actualization'. However, to make these happen in a reasonably short time period within the constraints of the organisation is incredibly difficult.
May be, it would also be a good idea to integrate Rewards and OD domains more tightly in terms of the structure of the HR function.
There is also a larger issue here. While there is no doubt that the HR function (and hence the Rewards and OD sub-functions) exists to support the business, the exact nature of the ‘business orientation’ that is required to support the business most effectively is a complex one. This becomes especially important, if HRM has to mean something more than ‘making people do more work without paying them too much and without risking disruptions to the business operations’. Please note that this problem is not confined to the Rewards domain. For example, if the OD/OE function goes about actively deskilling the jobs so as to manage the process risk and to reduce skill requirement (and hence the time and investment required in hiring/training and of course the salaries that need to be paid), it would take away from the richness and hence the motivation and learning potential of the jobs.
In the specialist functions like Rewards and OD we should also be careful to ensure that in our obsession with tools and techniques, we don’t miss the broader picture – that is alignment with the core values and the basic people management philosophy of the organisation.