Pay Banding

The Magnificent Mirage

by Roger Edwards

NOTE: This editorial began as an entry in my BLOG, but because of its length and likely relevance well into the future, I'm posting it here as a full essay also.
    ===== Roger =====

Recently I read a media column circulated around my workplace about President Bush's new civilian government employee initiative, which promotes pay-banding. Here is that column, though I can't guarantee for how long. Though I agree with most of what this President has advocated, I fear he is ignorant of the ramifications here.

Though the present system is, as the piece asserts, prone to abuse and waste, so is pay banding. If the federal unions -- especially those with weak collective bargaining agreements -- are steamrolled into accepting pay-banding, then government employees are stuck with it for generations. As a governmental union steward, I see the need for great caution before proceeding a micrometer further with this.

Given such a long-lasting legacy, and before this happens, both federal upper managers and union leaders must consider every possible outcome to judge if the direct and indirect expense of overhauling the pay and merit system is worth the most probable results.

The present General Services (GS) arrangement ranks positions by a number, 1-15, with lower GS grades being menial labor and/or entry level professionals struggling a trifle above minimum wage. Some GS-13s and -14s, and most -15s, are low level managers and/or semi-supervisory "leads" given as much as roughly $100,000 per year (link to the GS pay scales). In the Department of Commerce, managerial evaluations under this system are pass-fail. If you do either somewhat poorly or the best in the world, you pass, same grade. You fail only if:

    1. Your work is absolutely awful and (this is rare!) your manager has the cojones to give you a failing evaluation, or

    2. Your work is marginally acceptable to average, but your manager has an ax to grind and concocts enough excuses to fail you anyway, or

    3. Your manager's bosses have an ax to grind with you and pressure him enough to fail you, whatever your actual work performance.

You pass if:

    1. Your work is superhuman

    2. Your work is excellent

    3. Your work is good

    4. Your work is average

    5. Your work is subpar but still passable

    6. Your work stinks, but you have leverage over your supervisor in the form of

    1. His own manipulability with lame excuses
    2. His fear of your reprisal in the form of grievances or trumped-up EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) complaint
    3. His friendship with you or
    4. A potential article of blackmail.

Ostensibly, "excellent" to "superhuman" work earns cash awards beyond the passing grade, but only if the manager hasn't:
1. Already met his award budget (quota) for the fiscal year and
2. If he doesn't disfavor you for some lame reason unrelated to actual job performance.

If an office is full of excellent achievers, total office award allowances may be no greater than for an office full of motivationally numb, paycheck-collecting drones. This punishes team excellence. [This and other irregularities of the cash-award system is another stupid inconsistency about which I may write in the future.]

The potential abuses in this arrangement, both by employees and managers, should be obvious. The seniority driven GS system and a grossly binary performance scale are strongly supported by most government unions because a rigid scale minimizes management-employee cronyism compared to other systems. Problem is, it fails to reward true excellence with systematic consistency, while coddling those worthless sloths at all seniority levels who hide their lazy wastefulness behind collective bargaining agreements, threats of union grievance and/or threats of EEO discrimination filings. [I have witnessed some form of all three in my 16 years as a full time government employee.] Such parasites terribly detract from all legitimate union or EEO complaints, through their abuse of a system designed to protect the truly oppressed.

So is the solution pay banding? I'm highly skeptical but remain open to convincing, on one brutally simple condition to be named later.

Pay banding, like communism, may seem to be a brilliant idea on the surface, in its purest ideal. Within a range of pay generally tied to job type and a very broad seniority range, employees are supposed to be paid based on performance. Isolated pay banding experiments, each conducted under a microscopic degree of watchfulness and attention, have claimed some success. Sounds great, right?

If only actual practice were so utopian! Being under bright limelight, those highly controlled and deeply scrutinized experiments are ridiculously unrepresentative. They cannot replicate a future time when pay banding is common and normal, without individual offices under such close watch, its presence so pervasive that problems go "under the radar."

Pay banding opens up other potential abuses and does not eliminate many of the ones I listed above with the GS scale. A very well composed AFGE (federal union) website discusses the practical problems in plain and convincing detail. Please read that site carefully. The page is four years old, so clearly these lessons haven't been acknowledged by those who still advocate pay banding for their government organizations.

In summary, pay banding ensures that employee pay from year to year is even more strongly dependent on the subjective whim of the manager, and his honesty in evaluation, than at present. It assumes each of the following: No manager ever discriminates. No manager carries grudges. No manager disapproves of dissenting ideas. No manager has a personality incompatibility with a highly achieving employee. No manager is jealous of an employee who is more intelligent and creative than he. No manager imbues his personal emotions about an employee into the performance evaluation process. If you believe those, I've got thousands of acres of prime real estate southeast of Key Biscayne to sell you, at (sea) bottom dollar!

Pay banding, like cash awards under the GS system, prevents an office full of high achievers (like mine!) from earning more than a comparably sized office full of deadweight slugs, for the same reason: a ceiling on available funds. All pay is relative to others in the office instead of to actual work quality!

Under pay banding, employees who excel at and beyond their duties may be less likely to get rewarded in salary than those who excel at planting their lips firmly on their bosses' butt cheeks. Much as salmonella infests a vat of spoiling chicken juice, favoritism and cronyism can spread virtually unchecked through a pay banding system. Grievances and complaints easily may either clog the courts or be too sporadic to stop the runaway train of managerial abuse. In either case, that's bad news for employees. Creativity, uniqueness, and dissenting opinion will be punished even more than at present, in many instances. Truly honest managers will be soiled by the nefarities of their cronyistic colleagues, however few or many there are.

Senior Executive Service (SES) employees have been subject to pay banding for over a year. Pay supposedly is based upon performance, but in reality seems based on the low level managers' ability to please their bosses and/or meet performance quotas that often are forced from above, contrived, and unrealistic. [Often these are called "milestones" and cause problems for non-SES subordinates on the GS scale who are tasked with the actual work needed to meet them.] What's more important -- serving the customer or serving the taskmaster -- and his subjective, often very detached and ignorant impressions of customer needs? It's a choice many are facing now under SES pay banding.

What will be rewarded by mass pay banding of GS level employees? In some cases, it will be genuine good work. In others, any cases being far too many, pay banding will reward mindless groupthink, slobbering yes-men, managerial favoritism and petty spite, acts of undermining by jealous underperformers, and/or overcompetitive obsessiveness by employees.

I am sorely tempted to ask those who still support pay banding: "Do you have recent experience doing actual federal work at submanagerial level?", and if so, "What have you been smoking that is so potent as to cause hallucinations that pay banding is something worthwhile?"

So we may be trading one trouble-riddled system for another that is at least equally so, if not worse, and at considerable expense of money and effort. If enacted widely, the government will spend millions of your dollars directly, and uncounted millions of taxpayer-subsidized man-hours, to print pamphlets, rewrite computer programs, revise regulations, train employees and supervisors, and battle oppositional unions. Do you want this?

But I remain open-minded. I will wholeheartedly support changing to a pay-banding scheme -- if it can be guaranteed that no manager will abuse it.

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