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Thursday, 13 January 2011 15:26

Performance Measures and Compensation

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There are many forms of compensation used in business and government organizations throughout the world to pay workers for their physical and mental contribution. Compensation provides money for human effort and is necessary for individual and family existence in most societies. Trading work for money is a long-established practice.

The health-stressor aspect of compensation is most closely linked with compensation plans that offer incentives for extra or sustained human effort. Job stress can certainly exist in any work setting where compensation is not based on incentives. However, physical and mental performance levels that are well above normal and that could lead to physical injury or injurious mental stress is more likely to be found in environments with certain kinds of incentive compensation.

Performance Measures and Stress

Performance measurements in one form or another are used by most organizations, and are essential for incentive programmes. Performance measures (standards) can be established for output, quality, throughput time, or any other productivity measure. Lord Kelvin in 1883 had this to say about measurements: “I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”

Performance measures should be carefully linked to the fundamental goals of the organization. Inappropriate performance measurements have often had little or no effect on goal attainment. Some common criticisms of performance measures include unclear purpose, vagueness, lack of connection (or even opposition, for that matter) to the business strategy, unfairness or inconsistency, and their liability to be used chiefly for “punishing” people. But measurements can serve as indispensable benchmarks: remember the saying, “If you don’t know where you are, you can’t get to where you want to be”. The bottom line is that workers at all levels in an organization demonstrate more of the behaviours that they are measured on and rewarded to evince. What gets measured and rewarded gets done.

Performance measures must be fair and consistent to minimize stress among the workforce. There are several methods utilised to establish performance measures ranging from judgement estimation (guessing) to engineered work measurement techniques. Under the work measurement approach to setting performance measures, 100% performance is defined as a “fair day’s work pace”. This is the work effort and skill at which an average well-trained employee can work without undue fatigue while producing an acceptable quality of work over the course of a work shift. A 100% performance is not maximum performance; it is the normal or average effort and skill for a group of workers. By way of comparison, the 70% benchmark is generally regarded as the minimum tolerable level of performance, while the 120% benchmark is the incentive effort and skill that the average worker should be able to attain when provided with a bonus of at least 20% above the base rate of pay. While a number of incentive plans have been established using the 120% benchmark, this value varies among plans. The general design criteria recommended for wage incentive plans provide workers the opportunity to earn approximately 20 to 35% above base rate if they are normally skilled and execute high effort continuously.

Despite the inherent appeal of a “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”, some possible stress problems exist with a work measurement approach to setting performance measures. Performance measures are fixed in reference to the normal or average performance of a given work group (i.e., work standards based on group as opposed to individual performance). Thus, by definition, a large segment of those working at a task will fall below average (i.e., the 100% performance benchmark) generating a demand–resource imbalance that exceeds physical or mental stress limits. Workers who have difficulty meeting performance measures are likely to experience stress through work overload, negative supervisor feedback, and threat of job loss if they consistently perform below the 100% performance benchmark.

Incentive Programmes

In one form or another, incentives have been used for many years. For example, in the New Testament (II Timothy 2:6) Saint Paul declares, “It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops”. Today, most organizations are striving to improve productivity and quality in order to maintain or improve their position in the business world. Most often workers will not give extra or sustained effort without some form of incentive. Properly designed and implemented financial incentive programmes can help. Before any incentive programme is implemented, some measure of performance must be established. All incentive programmes can be categorized as follows: direct financial, indirect financial, and intangible (non-financial).

Direct financial programmes may be applied to individuals or groups of workers. For individuals, each employee’s incentive is governed by his or her performance relative to a standard for a given time period. Group plans are applicable to two or more individuals working as a team on tasks that are usually interdependent. Each employee’s group incentive is usually based on his or her base rate and the group performance during the incentive period.

The motivation to sustain higher output levels is usually greater for individual incentives because of the opportunity for the high-performing worker to earn a greater incentive. However, as organizations move toward participative management and empowered work groups and teams, group incentives usually provide the best overall results. The group effort makes overall improvements to the total system as compared to optimizing individual outputs. Gainsharing (a group incentive system that has teams for continuous improvement and provides a share, usually 50%, of all productivity gains above a benchmark standard) is one form of a direct group incentive programme that is well suited for the continuous improvement organization.

Indirect financial programmes are usually less effective than direct financial programmes because direct financial incentives are stronger motivators. The principal advantage of indirect plans is that they require less detailed and accurate performance measures. Organizational policies that favourably affect morale, result in increased productivity and provide some financial benefit to employees are considered to be indirect incentive programmes. It is important to note that for indirect financial programmes no exact relationship exists between employee output and financial incentives. Examples of indirect incentive programmes include relatively high base rates, generous fringe benefits, awards programmes, year-end bonuses and profit-sharing.

Intangible incentive programmes include rewards that do not have any (or very little) financial impact on employees. These programmes, however, when viewed as desirable by the employees, can improve productivity. Examples of intangible incentive programmes include job enrichment (adding challenge and intrinsic satisfaction to the specific task assignments), job enlargement (adding tasks to complete a “whole” piece or unit of work output), nonfinancial suggestion plans, employee involvement groups and time off without any reduction in pay.

Summary and Conclusions

Incentives in some form are an integral part of many compensation plans. In general, incentive plans should be carefully evaluated to make sure that workers are not exceeding safe ergonomic or mental stress limits. This is particularly important for individual direct financial plans. It is usually a lesser problem in group direct, indirect or intangible plans.

Incentives are desirable because they enhance productivity and provide workers an opportunity to earn extra income or other benefits. Gainsharing is today one of the best forms of incentive compensation for any work group or team organization that wishes to offer bonus earnings and to achieve improvement in the workplace without risking the imposition of negative health-stressors by the incentive plan itself.


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