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Is all compensation bribery? No. Incentive compensation? Yes.

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Somehow, I’ve become embroiled in a controversy (why do these things happen to me?) about the proper use of “professional.”

Many of those who have studied the topic insist it be restricted to, at a minimum, roles for which accredited institutions award certifications.

Some go further, wanting “professional” to be used only when the law doesn’t allow anyone to practice a craft without certification. By this definition, of course, cosmetologists qualify, but there is no such thing as an IT professional.

My own position? As I lack the authority to enforce linguistic usages on anyone (and if I had it, I’d use it to make using hopefully to mean I hope a felony), I limited my part of the conversation to description rather than prescription: “Professional” has at least four different meanings. In addition to the two already listed, it can mean “someone who practices a trade or craft that makes use of an extensive, well-defined body of knowledge and skills.” That’s what we mean when we talk about IT professionals.

And, it can mean “someone who gets paid for doing what they do.” I’m old enough to remember when professional athletes were barred from Olympic competition, the only difference between professional and amateur athletes being whether they’re paid for their efforts.

For some reason, these rather obvious points made some participants in the conversation downright grumpy.

Which brings us to the seemingly unrelated topic of whether incentive pay amounts to bribery, as claimed here not very long ago (“Do retention bribes make sense?KJR, 7/2/2012).

The place to start is the definition. Many correspondents insisted it isn’t a bribe unless the result is nefarious or illegal behavior, so incentive pay isn’t bribery.

But by that definition, giving a politician money in exchange for their agreeing to vote a certain way on an issue isn’t a bribe either. After all, voting a certain way on an issue isn’t illegal. For that matter, changing one’s mind, and therefore one’s vote isn’t illegal. Changing it in exchange for cash or other favors is what makes the cash or favors a bribe … and therefore illegal … in the first place.

Unless it’s a campaign contribution, of course, which, I’m told, is an exercise of free speech, not a bribe. Which of course makes complete sense: The purpose of free speech is to allow us to persuade each other through the presentation of compelling arguments, and what argument is more compelling to elected officials than a large wad of cash they can use in their attempts to get elected?

I trust the distinction is clear. But I digress. The question is whether incentive compensation is bribery. As what makes bribing an elected official illegal is that it gets them to do what they otherwise would not have done, that appears to be the essence of the beast.

Which leads to this frequently expressed objection to the incentive-comp-as-bribery proposition: If that’s a bribe, isn’t all compensation a bribe? After all, very few of us would show up for work if our employers stopped paying us.

It’s a good point. A very good point, that leads to a very important insight about leadership. But it isn’t quite right, because basic compensation doesn’t get anyone to do what they wouldn’t otherwise do.

Unless you’re wealthy enough to retire with the lifestyle you desire (and aren’t in a position to get enough money to live on via other means, like extortion or armed robbery) your options are limited: Starve to death or get a paying job.

So when your employer pays you, it isn’t to get you to go to work. You’d do that anyway. It’s to influence your choice of where to go to work—a very different matter.

Which gets us to why the point matters: Many business “leaders” (as opposed to leaders) think that money is the only tool they have to get employees to work for them, instead of somewhere else. They think, that is, they have to bribe people to work for them.

And so, they pay more than they have to and get worse results for it, because if money is all that matters to their employees, how they treat their employees doesn’t matter. “Leaders” like this don’t treat them very well.

Which leads to this week’s question: What could an employer offer you to get you to work for them if the best they could pay you was 15% less than what you’re making right now?

And this week’s second question: If you’re in management, do you offer this to the employees who work for you right now?

Comments (15)

  • Organizations which offer access to training, real opportunities for career enhancing projects, and provide meaningful support for projects, etc, can appeal to the other elements which motivate many employees.

    And let’s not forget flexible time, both work hours and time-off options.

    -ASB: http://XeeMe.com/AndrewBaker

  • Good question. I have in fact twice in my career left a job for a lower-paying one (and once fortunately for a higher-paying one) because the work conditions became intolerable. In one case the travel had become excessive; in the others my bosses were micromanagers and I did not agree with their approaches.

  • If I’m allowed to do what I’m best at, I’m called in for consultation when my input is needed, I have someone to train and mentor, and when things I’m not good at are taken care of by others who are; I’d work for what I’m working at now – which was okay when I was in that situation. Now that I’m not, I want more; or I will leave without much warning when I can if things don’t improve.

    Note that when I’m happy at work, work time is as fun or more fun than time away from work – meaning that incentives that others might choose such as flexible hours, more vacation, etc. have no meaning. TGIF as a well known phrase is the result of an unhappy workforce and a marketing campaign for bars. (Leading to an even less happy workforce on Monday. 😉

    The problem with incentive pay is when it is used with no clear criteria for when it is deserved. A lack of a clear (and published) metric makes it look like a bribe – or stupidity on the part of the payee when the person doesn’t work out as well as the payee thought. The number of companies that have perished or languished with CEOs and other top leaders making incentive pay to stay or speed out the door is the stupidity part. Any payee that writes a contract such that you have to pay someone to leave when the more typical incentive is a lack of payment for their services is a fool for negotiating from such a weak position.

  • 1. What could an employer offer you to get you to work for them if the best they could pay you was 15% less than what you’re making right now?

    2. And this week’s second question: If you’re in management, do you offer this to the employees who work for you right now?

    1. In prehistoric times (roughly 30 years ago) I concluded that no employer could (or should) put up with me. And I started to freelance. Anticipating a massive cut in “salary” I was pleasantly surprised that the effective salary increased slightly. And I had a lot more fun, contributed to the success of a client from time to time and knew when I really didn’t like what I was doing it would change soon because engagements were finite.
    2. Could a conventional employer provide a similar environment? I do not see how. Nor why.

    Employers have a set of requirements they must meet set by the company. As an individual employee you are faced by trying to add value to the real client, satisfy your own needs/wants and meet the requirement of the employer. Sometimes (often) that is very hard. Bilateral deals are tough, trilateral deals are very tough . . . often impossible to cause all players to be satisfied.

  • With regard to the restricted question of the meaning of “professional:” I used to be in one of the generally recognized “professions,” and we were taught a different definition of “professional” in school. That definition was that a professional puts the welfare of the client above his compensation for his services in the transaction, and that the professional will make personal sacrifices if needed to ensure the welfare of the client. The professional is also expected to be ready to provide the same level of service to at least some who cannot afford them. While in IT I’ve made many sacrifices and have put my welfare at risk for my employer (such as working a 90 hour shift, or working in excess of 100 hrs/week for months, or risking and sustaining injury in an unsafe workplace) I’ve never gotten to the point that I felt that I had a duty to provide free services to those who could not afford IT.

  • Salary is only one tangible offering, albeit the one that we pay the most attention to! Other tangible things that can be offered, and would be appreciated, include Formal training and vacation. There are a LOT of intangibles, such as flexible work hours, ability to mentor, opportunity to be mentored, ability to spend some small amount of time on projects of interest (should be negotiated with the boss to ensure that there is some business focus), etc.

  • As to the definition of “professional”, is it professional to train a low-skilled Engineer in an off-shore IT country to replace you in your job? Or is it “professional” to politely refuse?

    • There are those in this thread who would say yes to the former, as it requires you to put your client’s welfare ahead of your own.

      I figure it’s the moral equivalent of a husband asking his wife to train his mistress.

  • What could an employer offer you to get you to work for them if the best they could pay you was 15% less than what you’re making right now?

    Nothing. If they best they could do was even 10% less, I would go elsewhere – even if it meant having to influence the new culture to make things “better”.

    I had this issue come up a few weeks ago, when I was told I would be getting a pay cut (for the company’s economic reasons) that I needed to agree to. I flatly said “If I get a pay cut I will stay only as long as it takes me to find another job – and no longer”. The pay cut never happened.

    My minutes are valuable, and if one buyer can’t pay, another will.

    • Human psychology is interesting here. I think most people have a threshold in pay change they will see as significant.

      For example, if I was happy in my current job, and another employer offered me a 4% payrise, I doubt I would take it. Too many unknowns for against a small potential payoff.

      On the other hand, cutting or freezing my wages would reduce my morale and job satisfaction, and thus make it more likely I would consider a jump for a small increase.

  • “What could an employer offer you to get you to work for them if the best they could pay you was 15% less than what you’re making right now?”

    They can actually involve the employees in the management process of the area they work in. Assume that the employee that is doing a function has some insight to that function. If you have employees and you don’t think the know enough to provide input about their job function then there are two possibilities. Either they are an “idiot” that needs to be replaced or you are an “idiot” that needs to rethink the management processes that you are using.

    – A key sign of dysfunction in this area is when a company has “meetings” that involve management sitting on one side telling the employees on the other side what is going to happen to them.
    In other words: They always give “presentations” and they always call them “meetings”.

  • I think this needs the concept “fiduciary”. Part of “professionalism” is acting as a fiduciary of a client. For example a doctor or lawyer is expected to do what’s best for the client (patient), regardless of any personal interests. A professional does not “sell” something to a client simply for personal gain, but only because it will benefit the client. Handling conflicts of interest transparently is also part of the deal.

    A professional salesman is not a contradiction because the client in that case is the supplier, and the professional salesman tries to complete the job of selling as well as possible. The difference between client and customer should be clear. Similarly, an IT professional does not need to be bribed because he or she has already taken responsibility for getting the best possible outcome for the employer, regardless of personal interests.

    In other words, a professional places the long-term interest of professional reputation above short-term interests of personal gain.


  • Regarding: “…I’d use it to make using hopefully to mean I hope a felony)….”

    While I agree that the general use of hopefully to mean I am hopeful drives me nuts: language is as language does. I language and usage are living evolving things. Sometimes for the better, look at all the good stuff Shakespeare gave us, and sometimes for the worse. I am afraid the misuse of hopefully has made it to critical mass and we will not see the end of it in our lifetime.

    Unless you want to go the French way and have a government agency decided what is American and what is not, I don’t see any hope. Personally, I believe that particular cure is worse than the disease.

  • great read, I’ll be sharing the information

  • Having been both an employee and employer, I have found that pay is important so we can pay our bills and enjoy our lives. However, happiness for some is equally important especially considering how many hours we spend at work.

    What I wanted and what we try to provide our employees is to feel a part of our business. They have the ability to speak up without penalty and have their ideas and positions considered. We offer trust, flexible work space and hours and the ability to grow. We always attempt to communicate clearly both our pleasure at what they do and our displeasure,when necessary, reasonably.

    The happiest employees are not necessarily the best paid. They are generally the ones who’s jobs fit their lives.

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