Those who grew up during the Space Age are familiar with the adage, "this isn't rocket science." The phrase is used to denigrate a task as not particularly complicated. Well, those who labor in the area of Total Rewards soon learn that their challenges are a lot tougher than those experienced in rocket science.
The hard and fast rules of engineering and science don't exist in human resource management or the total reward field. Industrial/organizational psychology involves less precision, fewer immutable laws and a definite shortage of clear principles subject to exact definition and full control. Any two rocket scientists can cross-check calculations, compare instrument test readings and reach complete agreement on the demonstrable facts of their project. Any two professionals in the Total Rewards field looking at the same situation are highly unlikely to agree on much of anything. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that limits the precision of measurements in some technical issues involving the physical sciences can't hold a candle to the variations encountered in the arcane semi-scientific and occasionally bizarre quasi-artistic area of human relations.
Compensation is harder than rocket science. The facts of any compensation case are rarely as clear. The views and biases of the observer have stronger effects on inferences and conclusions. Verification of input information is far more complex and problematic. There are similarities, however, because compensation plan launches can also fizzle or blow up.
Outcome results from compensation systems are harder to forecast reliably because compensation deals with particularly unpredictable subjects. Total Reward professionals operate on agents who behave according to the Harvard Law of Behavior. Allegedly formulated by the graduate students of B.F. Skinner, it says, "Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases."
Human behavior is very difficult to pin down, much less harness and direct by schemes to attract, retain and engage. Engage seems a better term to use than "motivate," since you can't simply pump motivation into someone like gasoline (petrol, for our UK readers). People already have their own motivations. Engagement supplies the link between what we so hopefully dangle as a consequence of behavior and the response of the employee who embraces whatever tasty element of our smorgasbord most effectively appeals to them. There is an obvious parallel to olfaction, where the ability to smell something seems to depend on the operative odor receptors that accept and sense material that fits into them like a lock and key system. Without the sensor, you won't get the signal.
Rules of human behavior are far more complex and variable than the rules of engineering and math. No matter how hard we try to create consistent systems of uniform rules to impose on a workforce, they remain basically arbitrary and will not work with equal effectiveness on everyone.
Maybe this is why HR seems necessarily heuristic. Much Total Rewards tradecraft is based on aversion theory, painfully evolved by avoiding what clearly does NOT work in your unique environment and eliminating all the myriad less desirable alternatives until a few options acceptable to top management are reached.
It has been said often, about HR and TR: "This would be a great field if it weren't for the people." Bottom line: it is those very people with their quintessential combinations of variety and commonality that create the surprises and challenges of this tradecraft. If it were simple, it would be boring.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he's pretty muchbeen there done that articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.) and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Thanks to Compensation Café