More and more money to fewer and fewer people seems to be the trend today. Pundits raging at overpaid CEOs indignantly declare that regular workers instead should benefit from the obviously “excessive” sums paid to top executives. Even as some argue for greater entitlements to regular employees , other groups agitate for broader universal wealth sharing.
Multimillionaire politicians claim they fight for “the middle class,” while carefully tiptoeing around discussions of the class margins. “Upper class” and “lower class” are toxic terms rarely heard except from extremists glorying in the rewards they get by exploiting opportunities for class warfare. “Working class” might be another euphemism for the average citizen, but who in America today does not work for a living? The retired and the unemployed, I guess.
Government routinely cost-shifts social benefit expenses into employer payroll burden. We in the total rewards profession see that every day. Overtime rules, family care supports, health insurance requirements, taxes… the list of categories that siphon away dollars appears endless and constantly expands. At least, few seem to disappear..
Chambers of Commerce call for business-friendly policies that give their members a free hand in how they create, expend and distribute income.
Unions call for higher minimum wages while lobbying hard behind the scenes to insert exemptions (called loopholes when they apply to their enemies) for themselves.
It is remarkably easy to for special interest groups to advocate new costs that won’t apply to them but will handicap their rivals. Each group jockeys for a more favorable upstream position from which they can most swiftly, efficiently and permanently divert funds for their own purposes.
When everyone competes for a piece of a scarce resource like employment income, the distribution allocation might be expected to follow some academic formula. What is it? And what is really happening instead? If reality is not matching theory, I would expect all sorts of ivory tower eggheads with advanced degrees in labor economics would have spoken up to enlighten us mere compensation practitioners stuck in the mud of ground-level reality.
The phenomenal sums piled into the pockets of a few at the top of the corporate pyramids are easy targets for criticism. Despite the fact that dividing any “excessive” pot among regular employees might only buy each a single pizza, invidious comparisons make wonderfully effective sound bites. Those whose causes are better advanced by emotional reactions than by reasoned analyses will always choose the simpler way. Demagogues never let facts interfere with opportunities to provoke useful indignation and productive outrage.
Meanwhile, we who frequent this corner of the total rewards world tend to obsess about the many challenges we face dealing with all the complexity we find behind wages, salaries, bonuses stock options and fringe benefits. Then legislators pass new laws to criminalize "unfairness" and make our jobs ever harder!
Buried in the minutia of legal compliance tasks, we rarely ask the larger question: What is the social responsibility of those of us in the compensation trade?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent HR advisor with extensive total rewards experience. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook), speaker and board-certified executive compensation expert witness, he also sits on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
"Share money" image by kkojang, courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net