You may have been warned to, "Watch your commas, Ps and Qs to be safe from compensation disaster." Or perhaps it was a warning to, "Watch your commas, Ps, and Qs to be safe from compensation disaster." Did you spot the subtle difference? A mistake about grammatical meaning, as simple as an extra comma, could cost you, big time. Those Ps and Qs might also be pennies and quarters, Benjamins or megabucks.
A state overtime exemption language interpretation by an appeals court may cost a dairy over ten million dollars in back pay. The compensation issue came from confusion over a series of exempt categories. Ambiguity led to conflict over the identity of the exact gerunds referenced in a state law that said overtime rules do not apply to:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
The NYT article continued, summarizing the difficult grammatical issue.
Does the law intend to exempt the distribution of the three categories that follow, or does it mean to exempt packing for the shipping or distribution of them?
Delivery drivers distribute perishable foods, but they don’t pack the boxes themselves. Whether the drivers were subject to a law that had denied them thousands of dollars a year depended entirely on how the sentence was read.
The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual that applies to this legal provision discourages use of the Oxford (extra) comma when defining a series but also warns about the risk of ambiguity. Well, that ambiguity sure created a pileup crash of dairy and truck drivers here. Gee, what exactly did I mean by "dairy and truck drivers" there? Did a dairy collide with its drivers? Did drivers run into the dairy? Did dairy drivers and truck drivers have an accident? That might illustrate the problem.
Which groups are referenced remains unclear in many normal communications. A lack of clarity that is acceptable in everyday conversation becomes a land mine when encountered in a law. Misinterpretation of a regulation can (and inevitably will) produce chaos which results in litigation. Preventive measures should be simple. A list separated by semicolons, a reference in the law to the number of exempt categories, inserting an example, adding a citation or a footnote can clarify the intent. Sounds easy, because nothing is impossible for someone who doesn't have to do it.
Pay must be precise. The rules governing compensation should be clear. Whenever regulations are vague, confusion will ensue. The moment any party to an economic transaction feels shortchanged, they will usually protest. When a labor union represents employees, push-back is likely if not guaranteed. I was going to say, "push-back is likely and even guaranteed", but I worried that I would be misunderstood, criticized and embarrassed or humiliated. Now I'm unsure if I feared three possible negative reinforcements or four ... or some other number.
Remember, this is a bad place to be, when a compensation professional doesn't know for sure what number applies!
E. James (Jim) Brennan is a total rewards advisor with extensive multi-industry corporate HR and consulting experience. Past Compensation Editor of the Personnel Journal and last Senior Associate of pay surveyor ERI, he recently returned to consulting. Author of the Performance Management Workbook, popular speaker and frequent expert witness in executive compensation trials, Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.