There's a phenomenon that comes up not infrequently in individual pay decisions. The employee in question, it is argued, must be awarded an exceptional salary adjustment or bonus award to recognize the horrible hours they've been working, the overwhelming workload they are carrying and the fact that they've become the indispensable linchpin in the functioning of the entire team/department/division/company. This employee, the argument further goes, is burned out and at the end of their rope. He or she must be given a lot of money immediately or they will quit!
The case for the exception isn't necessarily built on performance results or skill set (though these may be there). Rather, the situation is built upon the unsustainable workload and stress.
With all respect to all our brave men and women in uniform, I call this phenomenon combat pay.
When faced with a manager who is breathlessly pushing for an immediate combat pay award, our first instinct should be to slow the train and start asking a few questions. What has happened to put an employee in this situation? What is the business challenge or situation that has created this pressure and why is it disproportionately falling on this individual? Does this employee have a unique competency or background which demands that they carry the entire weight and - if so - what is being done to bring in and train support? Are roles and processes so out-of-whack that they create a funnel of problems being dumped in the lap of one individual and - if yes - is this being assessed and addressed? Is there something about this individual's own personality, preferences or blind spots that is driving the situation? If true, what is being done to understand and provide help?
Is the person a new manager who is struggling to delegate and rise above their former role and hands-on expertise? What kind of coaching and support are being offered to help them adapt to their new role ... or to consider a move back to individual contributorship, if necessary?
I'm not completely against offering more compensation to a person in this situation; however, I am against the quick pay fix which ignores and even reinforces a bad situation, and gets the manager (and the organization) off the hook by allowing them to kick that can down the road. Combat pay awards may provide a brief salve but they do nothing to relieve a stressed and burned-out employee, nor do they even begin to help the inevitable ripple effect that flows from the combat point.
How many of you struggle with combat pay in your organizations? What experience and advice can you offer?
Ann Bares is the Editor of Compensation Café, Author of Compensation Forceand Managing Partner of Altura Consulting Group LLC, where she provides compensation consulting services to a wide range of client organizations. She earned her M.B.A. at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School and enjoys reading in her spare time. Follow her on Twitter at @annbares.
Creative Commons image "Army Helmet" by Brandon Johnson