Readers Respond to Performance Bonus Pay Survey

What role should performance bonus pay have in the total compentation of federal employees?

A number of readers took our online poll on "Performance Bonus Pay" and a few hundred readers took the time to submit comments.

Regular readers will not be surprised about the strong reaction of many federal employees to virtually any issue on the topic of pay and performance. It is clear that while many federal employees may not like the current pay system, they are fearful of changing the existing system. Despite complaints from some that the current system does not work well, the reaction of many is that changing the system will not improve performance and efficiency in the federal government’s executive branch.

It is possible a Republican administration thought there may be an entrepreneurial flair dormant among the federal workforce because of a lack of opportunity. Perhaps the thinking was that once federal employees had the same chance to excel and be rewarded based on performance, instead of longevity in the job, there would be a change in the culture of the executive branch.

If that is the case, perhaps the entrepreneurial spirit will flower once a new pay for performance system is implemented. So far that capitalist spark is remaining well hidden.

There is no question that the vast majority of respondents think the current awards system fails to reward the best people. There is also no doubt that the most vocal commentators on the issue prefer the current system to a plan that rewards some employees more than others based on performance results.

We have not counted the number of comments we have received in the past several weeks. Several columns has published recently have resulted in hundreds of submissions. This survey looks at the issue a little differently but a number of readers responded with several hundred comments on pay for performance in general and the current awards program in particular.

Here are the results:

On the question of "Should part of every federal employee’s compensation plan be a performance based incentive or bonus?" 45% of those responding answered "yes." 44% did not think a performance based incentive should be part of the federal compensation plan and 11% were not sure.

The second question read: "Under the current system in your agency, do you feel the hardest working people get fair consideration for performance awards?" 79% of respondents said "no" and 17% thought the hardest working people do get fair consideration. 4% of those responding were not sure.

The third question was "Do you feel that the Senior Executives in your agency who receive performance bonuses are generally deserving of them?" 67% said "no" and 11% answered "yes." 22% were not sure.

Here is a small sample of the comments that were sent in by readers.

We did receive a very few favorable comments on pay for performance that displayed at least some of the capitalist spirit. In reading through hundreds of submissions, I found three comments that could be considered favorable.

From an engineer with the Army in Huntsville, Alabama: "I am a pay banded employee and have been under a form of the new system in a Lab Demo Project for 4 years. I feel that I did as well or better than I would have as a GS employee. "

A Quality Assurance Specialist from a Marine Corps base in Barstow, CA had this to say: "This is something that needs to be done because of all the dead wood in our agencies. When people see that they will get a raise when it’s due, and make the same no matter what they do, it becomes impossible to get 8 hours work out of them."

And this reader from the Navy in San Diego, California commented: "Our command is already on a pay for performance system (former Demo) and I think it’s very effective. It’s really not something to be that scared of."

Some readers could not resist the "good old boy" analogy. Here are a couple of them.

This is from a reader at an Air Force base in Utah: "If the newly designed NSPS is carried out this will create hate and discontentment,as the the GOOD OLE BOY system will prevail."

An Air Traffic Control Specialist from the FAA in Vienna, VA wrote: "The current pay system was set up to prevent the ‘good old boy spoils system.’ Pay for Performance requires the managers to actually manage, and that’s where the problem lies. They can’t manage but have never been accountable for it."

An HR specialist with the FAA has a view of how pay for performance has worked in that agency: "The FAA has developed a pay for performance system that frankly does not work. Unions have negotiated sweet deals for their employees while non-bargaining unit employees are faced with quotas rather than honest pay for performance guidance. The deals negotiated by management and the unions have elevated union ranks based on the fact that membership privileges surrounding pay increases far out weigh dues. Employees simply unionized for purely financial reasons. Non-union employees end up suffering the impact of doing a great job, but only 20% get top superior contribution awards and 45% get the reduced award. Unions have gotten annual payraises on top of organizational sucess increases while non-union employees surrender annual payraises to pay for the imbalance. It has ended up being a pay for unionization rather than performance system. Membership truly has it (sic) privileges!"

A number of readers links pay for performance with a performance plan. This reader from the Air Force in San Antonio, Texas captured the sentiments of a number of readers when he said: "The problem w/’performance-based’ anything is that "performance" is so arbitrarily and subjectively defined by whoever (ie, manager) is in place to deign to hand you that ‘reward.’ Sometimes you can jump through all the hoops in the world, and all it takes is one manager to say that you failed to make that 1 last jump. That’s why established grades and steps make more sense. It eliminates that subjectivity–and, in most cases, the vendettas that may accompany it…"

With regard to awards, some employees believe the higher-graded employees (or at least other people) will get all or most of the money.

A reader from the Department of the Army in San Antonio reflected the views of several readers when writing: "In my office the clerks get modest bonuses. The GS 11-12s are seen to make enough money via salary. Nothing to do with performance….Kinda screwball…"

A reader from the Department of Agriculture in Des Moines says he will not get any awards either: "The awards will go to the ones that file EEO complaints. If the awards are not statisticaly equal for all minorities there will be law suits. This system will just end up costing the government more, with no better results than the current system."

There is also some conflict between headquarters offices and those who are not located in Washington, DC. Several readers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development made comments similar to this one HUD employee: "It’s amazing to me that the SES employees in Headquarters not only get the glory, but the money as well. But where is the work being done?? Field offices. Field offices that can’t even provide spot awards for their employees who accomplish the goals and mission of the organization."

In short, most of the readers responding to the survey are negative in their depiction of how performance awards are distributed in government. Most do not want to see performance pay instituted or to see performance bonuses used as a way to increase productivity or to reward the best performers. A few commented that they are not opposed to the concept; most seem convinced they will not benefit from such a system for a variety of reasons. Other readers seem opposed to the concept–perhaps because they prefer the security of a system that rewards longevity to taking a chance in a system that relies on the judgment of a manager to reward the best performers. And, finally, there is a strong belief among many respondents that they will not be judged fairly or that other employees will bet more pay or rewards than they will.

And, if you are looking for a positive note among all the negative comments, here is one thought. It wasn’t too long ago that we got numerous comments about the unfair federal pay system. The general consensus was that the existing system resulted in pay that was too low for federal employees compared to the private sector. In reviewing hundreds of comments sent in during the past few days, not a single one referenced this issue. The focus has shifted to preserving the existing pay system instead of a pay for performance system.

Thanks to all of our readers who took the time to send in their vote and their comments on our latest survey.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47