I have both friends and clients who have been struck by an unfortunate dilemma. I have a couple of friends who have been told one thing for months, and perhaps years, only to find out that the truth they knew wasn’t the “real” truth. I have clients who need to realign pay for people who have been told they were top performers when, in fact, they are less than adequate. In both cases it seems more like senior managers were trying to be nice, rather than sneaky.
Why have confrontation when you can have everyone like you? It’s easier to be nice to everyone. Many managers have made this their approach to leading their staff. Rather than point out flaws, they point out only the positives. Rather than prepare their staff for bumpy water in the future, they keep things on the bright side right up to the moment the boat hits the dangerous rapids. The discussion of a potential demotion, cut in pay or job-ending decision never seems to make it onto the agenda.
Employees want to be led, and generally want the truth. I also think managers generally want to tell the truth, but seldom have the skills to do so delicately. While these managers do a disservice to employees by not laying out a realistic path, those of us in the compensation community do even worse by not providing them with the tools, words and examples that will allow them to discuss both the good and bad.
We can’t expect great employees who have been promoted to be great managers to be able to talk about pay issues with any amount of expertise. We also can’t expect that they will always do this task well, even if they have been trained. We need to make it clear what needs to be said to underperformers and check back to make sure it has been communicated.
This is not about avoiding lawsuits or angry ex-employees. This is about not being jerks in the eyes of those we need to keep working hard. Once the trust on performance has eroded in a single example, you risk the chance of other employees questioning their value to the company. Rebuilding trust is far more difficult than maintaining it. Like a swimming pool, it is far easier to keep it full than it is to fill it up.
So look at what you've asked managers to communicate. Then ask yourself if you have provided them the skillset to do so with a complete level of truth. It is not only our job to make sure that pay is properly designed and set, it is also our responsibility to ensure that the discussions around pay reflect the sometimes harsh reality of underperformance.
Dan Walter is the President and CEO of Performensation an independent compensation consultant focused on the needs of small and mid-sized public and private companies. Dan’s unique perspective and expertise includes equity compensation, executive compensation, performance-based pay and talent management issues. Dan is a co-author of “The Decision Makers Guide to Equity Compensation” and “Beyond Stock Options.” Dan is on the board of the National Center for Employee Ownership, a partner in the ShareComp virtual conferences and the founder of Equity Compensation Experts a free networking group. Dan is frequently requested as a dynamic and humorous speaker covering compensation and motivation topics. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @Performensation and @SayOnPay