March 4, 2012
Not long after this column launched, I declared myself America's most beloved workplace-advice columnist. While that wasn't based on anything concrete — like facts — it has yet to be disputed, so I assume it's true.
That makes me somewhat of a superstar in my field, yet I continue to get paid in Starbucks gift cards and promises of a Beanie Baby-based retirement account. This injustice exists because there's no effective system to evaluate workplace-advice columnist performance.
And that, my fellow workers, is where we have something in common.
Companies large and small are notoriously bad at identifying top performers and rewarding them properly. Equally problematic is the failure of managers to set clear performance guidelines, which leads to the Why-Does-That-Jerkface-Get-Paid-More-Than-Me Conundrum.
So evaluations are done, raises are given, and more often than not there are outstanding workers who feel underappreciated and struggling workers left with no clue how to improve.
"Most evaluations are not worth the paper they're written on," said Paul Dorf, managing director of Compensation Resources Inc., a consulting company that helps develop compensation and incentive plans. "People don't want to say you're an average employee or you're an OK employee. They want to say you're a great employee. So most evaluations say that people are better than they actually are."
That's a disservice to everyone involved. If I'm not doing my best at a job, I'd like to be told so and given some direction on how to improve. If I am doing my best, I'd like to know about it so I can bask in my own greatness and be properly rewarded. I don't want to be praised when I'm screwing up anymore than I want to be schluffed into the middle of the pack when I'm excelling.
"If you tend to reward employees with across-the-board raises, what does that say to the high performers in the organization?" said Ryan Johnson, vice president of research at WorldatWork, a nonprofit focused on human resources issues such as compensation and workforce retention. "Here I am busting my hump every day and then at the end of the year, congratulations, everybody's getting a 5 percent increase. Am I really going to be motivated to stay there and continue to give that sort of effort?"
A new study published in the spring edition of the journal Personnel Psychology (appearing right next to the publication's annual gardening tips) highlights how important it is for companies to identify elite performers and reward them. Researchers examined more than 600,000 people in four fields and found that a larger-than-expected chunk of productivity is coming from a small percentage of people.
"In some of the data that we have, the top 5 percent of workers produce 25 percent of the output," said Herman Aguinis, a professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and co-author of the study. "The implication is that you have a few superstars who, with the systems most companies use to measure performance today, are not always detected. They're sometimes not acknowledged."
This study blows apart long-held performance evaluation schemes.
"Research done in the '40s and '50s showed that performance is distributed following a normal bell curve, but those studies were done in a manufacturing context where you couldn't really have a superstar performer," Aguinis said. "In today's knowledge economy, if you have an employee or a researcher or a politician who is a superstar, there's no limit to their performance, but that won't show up on a bell curve."
That, he says, is why companies must rethink how they track and reward performance.
"We're not saying those people in the center are completely unnecessary, not at all," he said. "But we have a subset of top performers whom you really can't do without. These are the people that are the top players, you really need to get hold of these people."
I can hear what many of you are thinking: "This sounds great, but half the knuckleheads at my office who are viewed as 'superstars' are just toadies and pets of the boss." I, and the experts, feel your pain.
Dorf said paying for performance can be effective only if you have a consistent way of measuring it. It has to be focused on the specific goals of the organization, fully understood by all employees and supported by management.
In other words, everybody's got to be on the same page. That's the only way you can see who's doing the most work and give the underperformers a road map for success.
Accomplishing this takes what Johnson of WorldatWork calls "managerial courage."
"That's the ability of the manager to have a difficult conversation with a midlevel or lower-performing employee," he said. "You need to have the courage to have candid conversations with people about their performance. You need to have the courage to say to someone, 'Your performance was good, but it wasn't great.'"
And then the manager needs to give the employee specific guidance on how to improve. If that doesn't happen, Johnson said: "It's incumbent on the employee to say, 'Thank you for your candor, now what do I need to do to improve my performance and get a higher rating?' There's shared responsibility on that matter."
Again, I know many of you are shaking your heads and thinking this sort of logical, straight-shooting approach will never happen at your company.
If it doesn't, ask about it. As with so many workplace issues, it's simply a matter of honesty and common sense.
And why do I speak with such certainty about this?
Because I am America's most beloved workplace-advice columnist — and I have the stockpile of highly valuable Beanie Babies to prove it.
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