ARE YOUR EMPLOYEES WORTH WHAT YOU'RE PAYING THEM? REALLY?

In an interesting Freakonomics podcast, authors Levitt and Levine discuss whether expensive wines are worth the price. Their conclusion: They are not. Here's an example of an interesting experiment. Participants were asked to rate two different wines. All they knew was that one was a $10 bottle and one was a $50 bottle of wine, when in fact it was the same $20 bottle. The participants overwhelmingly chose the $50 bottle as having the better taste. Interestingly, some participants asked the testers if it could, in fact, be the same bottle of wine. When told that they'd have to decide for themselves, most of them reached the “logical” conclusion that they had to be different wines because of their different pricing – so they rated the more expensive wine as better.

Here's the point: We often value things more simply because we pay more for them. If this holds true for wine and cars and dates, then why wouldn't it be true for employees? Employers have tried to finagle with compensation systems from Day 1. What's the right mix of compensation to help generate the greatest return on investment of an employee or workforce? Because it's a mistake to underpay or overpay employees, how do we decide just how much to? Here's an easy three-part solution:

1. Identify the market rate. What does the “average” employer pay for a certain level of employee? You can learn this by going to the statistics at BLS.gov, your state labor agencies, sites such as Salary.com, or your local employers' group. You might also have industry-related associations and can hire some competitive intelligence to provide these rates. In my experience and opinion. to pay anything more than 25% above grade is essentially throwing away money. For example, in the fast food industry if $8.50 is the norm, it might make sense to pay $10.50, as In-N-Out Hamburger does in California, or the premium Costco pays its employees. However, it doesn't make sense to pay even 1% above grade if it's not going to buy you a more productive employee. Perhaps there are other ways to attract productive employees. You might be able to attract them by being the most outrageous or flexible or cutting-edge workforce.

2. Think team bonuses. When I perform employee surveys at companies, I always ask whether employees prefer incentives based on individual performance, on that of a team, or of the entire company. Over the years, I've found that where there's a great deal of trust, people prefer team-based incentives. If trust is low, they prefer individual incentives. Of course, we trust those people to whom we're closet. As an owner, if I wanted to help generate trust, I would offer team-based incentives. As the saying goes, “A rising tide floats all boats.” I would recommend a bonus (say 10% of net profits) and then distribute it based on employee's gross compensation. For example, if one employee makes $50,000 per year and one employee makes $25,000, the person making $50,000 gets twice the bonus. This is a simple formula that avoids a lot of wasted time and energy trying to finagle 2% here, 4% there, etc. If an employee displays outstanding performance, the chances are that they're in line for a raise or promotion. This is how you manage going forward.

3. Award people immediately on an individual basis when they go the extra mile. According to Barber's 1001 Proverbs, “The greatest benefit is the one last remembered.” Don't underestimate the power of: (a) rewarding what you want to reinforce, and (b) doing it immediately. These rewards need not be expensive; they're as much about acknowledgment as they are about money. Of course, a little bit of cash helps too.

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