Wage levels can be far less important than influence over other broader features of the workplace. Disputes dealing with amounts earned are frequently less problematic than struggles about status. Sometimes control over who establishes the rates of pay and terms of work becomes a topic of rivalry. Battles between groups contesting for authority to set employee work rules also involve a lot of the same give and take dynamics found in basic wage and salary administration. Remember that anything that is considered valuable can become a compensation issue.
It was quite distressing when the new chief engineer of the chemical plant could not pass the test for a boiler operator's license. A relatively recent government rule imposed for worker safety now required him to hold the same technical certification already held by the two hourly boiler operators he would supervise. His advanced degrees in chemical engineering from the prestigious school known to graduate "boilermakers" made the written test a snap, but he inexplicably failed the oral examination.
He was certainly quite articulate when I had interviewed him for the job, so this was a puzzlement. Then I learned that the certification board for the required operating engineer's license to run an industrial boiler was composed of past and current officers of the Operating Engineers Union. Now I properly understood the problem clearly enough to see the eventual solution.
Since all the plant workers including the two properly licensed boiler operators were Teamsters, the oral skills of the previously highly credentialed but regulatorially (is that a word?) under-qualified candidate became marvelously enhanced after the obvious deal was cut. Once the two boiler operators became members of the Operating Engineers Union, our chief engineer's verbal talents suddenly improved enough to satisfy the examination board of Operating Engineers. The Teamsters also benefited from their loss of two dues-paying members. They still retained overall representation of the rest of the plant workers, although now another union shared their power to totally shut down operations with work stoppages. Their payment is another story best left untold.
The point is that compensation embraces far more than simple money, benefits, perquisites or other forms of financial remuneration. When rewards are considered, elements such as worker expectations, psychic income and workforce power dynamics are also involved. Whatever is valued in the organization is always up for grabs. If the employer does not exercise control over it, other parties will. "Comp" tend tends to be a pivot point even when neither the issue nor its resolution can be handled with a payroll action. "Total rewards" remains a fascinating field that encompasses all the elements that affect human behavior in the workplace and beyond.
Are you fascinated yet? Either way, yes or no, hang around for more. The thoughts and experiences regularly shared here might save you from disaster some day. Once you have absorbed a lesson from history, it should be a lot easier to handle any similar situation you may encounter in the future.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent total rewards advisor with extensive multi-industry corporate HR and consulting experience. Once Compensation Editor of the Personnel Journal and Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI, author of the Performance Management Workbook, and frequent expert witness in reasonable executive compensation court cases, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
" Boiler" image by Jorret de Jager, courtesy of Creative Commons