Are You One of the “Good Old Boys?”

Pay-for-performance is on the rise in the private sector and in the federal government. Does it make a difference in pay for those under such a system? What can a federal employee do to get ahead under such a system?

Most people working for a living think they should be earning more money–or at least would like to make more.

Federal employees are no exception to this human condition. Some of the most common comments submitted by readers are to the effect that they feel underpaid and that they would be making more if they worked in the private sector.

Federal employee salaries have generally been moving up faster than those in the private sector in recent years. And, in addition to the annual pay hikes that have been given, the federal system provides quality step increases, relatively fast promotions in many professional positions and an awards system that provides some extra money for those who happen to get the awards. (See Federal Workforce is ‘Elite Island of Secure and High-Paid Workers’)

A push to introduce a pay for performance system has generated a rash of comments from readers on this site and elsewhere in the media–most of the comments along the line of the "good old boy" system will deprive the reader of a well-deserved promotion.

As of now, it looks as though active federal employees will be receiving an average 2.7 percent pay raise in January. (See Your 2007 Pay Increase: Plenty to Make Some Happy and Some Angry) Federal employees received an average pay increase of 3.1% in 2006. (See Merry Christmas! President Signs Pay Raise Executive Order)

Because of locality pay and the difficulty of comparing the diverse work forces in federal and private companies the analogy is not perfect but, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, salaries for white-collar workers in the private sector are expected to go up about 3.6% this year.

One of the biggest concerns among white collar workers? The increasing importance of pay for performance plans instead of across-the-board raises.

Under the pay for performance systems, there will be a big difference in the pay raises between those who get good ratings and those who do not. According to some estimates, those that get the best ratings as being the best employees will get an average raise of about 9%. Those that do not do well will get a raise of about 2.5% (some will not get any) and the average performer will come in at about 3.1%.

Common complaints from readers on this site about pay for performance are often along the lines of this one from an employee from the Department of Veterans Affairs: "Let’s call this what it really is, the redone ‘good old boy system’ or ‘the new brownnoser act’. If you don’t suck up to your boss you won’t get a raise."

With this in mind, what does the Journal advise private sector employees to do in order to succeed under a pay for performance system? Here is the guts of the advice. "As more raises become tied to performance, be sure the boss knows what you have been up to. ‘You have to promote yourself,’ says Barbara LaRock, a Reston, VA. career coach. Bosses can’t know everything, she says. Employees should keep a diary of accomplishments and talk up the most impressive ones."

In other words, employees who contribute to the success of the organization get more money. And, another piece of advice from the Journal: "You are here to make your boss successful, not yourself." Stated differently, look at your performance from the perspective of your boss. How have you contributed to the success of your agency?

From seeing the hundreds of comments from readers on pay-for-performance issues, a large number of readers are fearful and resent the change to a pay-for-performance system. Pay-for-performance is becoming a reality for some in the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. It may (or may not) be extended to the rest of the federal workforce.

Useful advice is often difficult to accept. But, for anyone who wants to achieve full potential in a job, having a broader perspective will serve you better. If you have not been promoted while others have, harboring a grudge and lambasting your supervisor over his or her poor judgment in promoting someone else will not help you get ahead. Being resentful, angry and seething over a performance appraisal you think is unfair and then displaying your opinion of the appraisal is not likely to help you get ahead.

You may not like a pay-for–performance system. You may not like the current system of awarding promotions and other financial rewards. Angry, resentful people may have a good point; they are not likely to end up being the most successful members of a team or the highest contributing members.

A pay-for–performance system will give your supervisor more control over your financial future. You may think that supervisor is in the job because of the "good old boy system." You may be right. You may even feel better telling everyone you know what you think of the supervisor and the system and ensuring your attitude is well-known to your supervisor and other managers. You may even win a couple of grievance or EEO cases with enough time and effort to prove your point.

But, if you are interested in getting promoted and making more money, that is not the best approach. Your best move: Get over it. Do a good job and promote yourself. Take the approach that you have been hired to make your organization succeed. Approach your job with the view that it is not the responsibility of your supervisor to ensure your success–it is up to you to help your boss succeed and you need to promote the steps you have taken to make that happen.

You are more likely to move up in the organization and make more money as a result. Promoting that attitude is one of the primary drivers behind pay-for-performance in the federal and private sectors of our economy. Perhaps it will also make you one of the "good old boys."

The choice is always yours.

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