Once upon a time, on a lush tropical island, well-known for a temperate climate and palm trees, there lived two groups of people. Some of these people had lived on the island their entire lives, and were happy and contented. Another group of people came to the same island, lived there a few years, and they were almost universally unhappy. The two groups were similar in many ways, with roughly the same incomes and enjoying the same standard of living. What accounted for the difference in the experiences of the two groups?
A Fairy Tale Life
Despite the flight of fantasy of this introduction, this story has roots in reality – with one group representing the employees our organization sends to Hawaii. Despite the desirability of this almost idyllic setting, counterintuitively the employees assigned to Hawaii represent the most vocally unhappy and disaffected group of employees we assign to any non-CONUS location. What is it that so dramatically separates our employees from what I’ll call the local “indigenous” workforce?
You’re On An Island . . . and Things Cost More
The cost-of-living in Hawaii is, well, high. Likewise, the principal island industries are tourism and agriculture – which are famous for their low-paying jobs. Additionally, Hawaii is made up of a series of islands, including the island of Oahu. Therefore, in contrast to housing locations available to those who work in say, New York City, who can choose to live in lower cost housing areas, the options for anyone who works on an island are “geographically limited”.
Some Incentives, But They’re Limited
To offset increased living costs, certain pay and incentives are provided to employees assigned to Hawaii. Beyond that, the available interventions are limited, principally due to the fact that the cost-of-labor in Hawaii is relatively low.
Additionally, financial guidance and other tools are provided to employees considering an assignment in Hawaii. Despite this, employee unhappiness in this single location has nearly subsumed our organization’s focus over the past several years, and has presented a seemingly intractable problem.
Universal Unhappiness . . . Or, Maybe Not
Recently, a former employee, who I’ll call Lauren (because that’s her name), returned from a 2½ year assignment in Hawaii. Of employees I’ve heard from regarding their “troubled” existence out in Hawaii, I noted that I’d not heard anything negative from Lauren – although I’d spoken to her several times over the years. In a search for clues, I asked Lauren about her time in Hawaii, and whether it had been the impoverished experience that everyone described it to be. Her answer was extremely enlightening.
First, Lauren expressed her gratitude in being selected for a position in Hawaii, and shared that she and her husband discussed both the challenges and opportunities the assignment would entail. Then they thoroughly educated themselves about what lifestyle they would be able to maintain after they arrived, and then they stuck to their plan. While Lauren admitted having to scale back in some areas, in other areas she acknowledged they were much better off intrinsically (something about nice weather, the beach and surfing every single day) – to say nothing of the career enhancements that both she and her husband realized by taking the assignment. And throughout, they never lost sight that this was a short-term (2-3 years) assignment.
A Small Dose of Expectations-Setting — The Cure for Something?
By now, nearly everyone knows at least a little bit about the work by guys like Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky and Richard Thaler, and the areas of behavioral economics and social neuroscience – and specifically their work on the subject of loss aversion, among others. Loss aversion refers to people’s predisposition to avoid losses, or the perception of losses, even when offset by equivalent or even greater gains in other areas. While not the only factor in people’s goal of maintaining an existing lifestyle in different locations, it certainly looks to be a likely suspect in this situation. It also partially explains the attitudinal differences between similarly-situated (locals vs. transitory) employees. While easier said than done, the solution would appear to be ramping-up our own expectations-setting messaging, and better communicating the intrinsic benefits these assignments. Again, easier said than done.
Everyone probably has a different perspective. What’s yours?
Chris Dobyns, CCP, CBP, is Manager of the Office of Human Resource Strategies for one of the largest U.S. intelligence agencies. The Office of Human Resource Strategies is responsible for compensation and incentives, occupational structure, recognition and rewards, HR policy, and human capital program evaluation and assessment for his Agency. Chris has worked in the area of compensation for more than 30 years, and has been employed in various compensation-related positions by a number of large, private sector companies including, Sears, Roebuck, Arizona Public Service and Westinghouse Savannah River Company.