Benefits envy

Ill-feeling can set in when benefits are distributed unfairly. Childcare, performance, long service, management bonuses and reward, and expatriate packages are all potential flash points for professional envy, says Jenny Keefe

Case Studies – Toyota, Punch Taverns

Article in full

There is an AA car loan advert doing the rounds at the moment featuring Kev and Bev, a couple driving around town in an old banger. They stop at a junction where their slightly more well-to-do alter egos draw up in a flashy new motor. "We used to have one of those," says the glossy Bev, and as they purr away, the jalopy-burdened Kev and Bev are speechless.

Both couples have the same names, and apart from a material difference, look the same – so why are the affluent looking ones better off? Let’s transpose this scenario into the workplace. Top salesperson Lil has been with the company for 11 months, while colleague Phil has a year’s service under his belt. Their employer then brings in a share incentive plan, with the condition that you need 12 months’ service to be eligible.

Phil gets a nice windfall and Lil is more than a little green with envy. If benefits are not dealt out fairly and staff are treated differently without good reason, ill feeling can quickly set in. And while a little competition is healthy, no one wants to work in a seething pit of office politics. Boris Sokoloff wrote in his 1947 book, Jealousy – A psychological study: "Jealousy is not only inbred in human nature, but it is the most basic, all-pervasive emotion which touches man in all aspects of every human relationship."

Work relationships included. The second deadly sin is an occupational hazard. According to a survey carried out last year by recruitment firm Office Angels, almost nine-out-of-10 office workers suffer from professional envy of colleagues they perceive to have more glamorous or better-paid jobs. So how does the green-eyed monster manifest itself in the workplace? Ceri Diffley, an occupational psychologist at think-tank the Work Foundation, says: "It all relates to the area of organisational justice. You will often find that if people feel there has been an injustice – whether it’s to themselves or not – it will be a major determinate of turnover.

Feelings of unfairness are very destructive, especially when you are working in a team, where you need to develop elements of trust. Envy is a very emotive word but it basically means that there’s a feeling that somebody’s getting something that they shouldn’t." She adds that when employees negotiate their own packages, some can feel hard done by, often with good reason. "There are two camps. One is about liberal-minded equity for all and the other side is people that are very competitive and Darwinian and believe in survival of the fittest, which you can understand until you take into the account that it’s not actually a fair playing field.

Woman are notoriously not as adept at bargaining for things like monetary rewards. They are also more likely to underestimate their skills and ability." Indeed, in her book, Women don’t ask: negotiation and the gender divide, professor Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University reports that only 7% of female graduates negotiate for a higher salary than the one initially offered by a potential employer, while 57% of male graduates do. As a sign of the times, work-life balance concessions for parents are another increasingly common source of bitterness. "With the big increase in things that are being done for parents, you get a lot of resentment from people who may choose not to have children.

Just because somebody made a life choice not to have children or perhaps can’t have kids then they are doubly disadvantaged, because they are having to make up the time that their colleagues have off. It’s about applying flexible working across the board and also giving flexible offerings; so saying ‘you can have some childcare, I’ll have some holiday’," says the Work Foundation’s Diffley. Performance-related reward is another longstanding bone of contention.

There is a school of thought that argues that there’s nothing wrong with a reward scheme that drives workers to achieve. "When employers bring in targets and have not had a performance-related culture before, you find that a lot of people say that they are not really into it. But as soon as they start seeing colleagues getting rewards it drives them to do the same. "Envy does encourage you to compete because if you believe that you should have something that somebody else has, you therefore believe that you are deserving of it, thus you can get it if you work hard enough.

But that’s only if you are that type of person and you are motivated by competition," she adds. David Marsden, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, says: "In my research on performance-related pay, many employees thought it provoked jealousy, and that line managers did not conduct performance evaluations fairly – rewarding their favourites. I can appreciate that envy could also be a motivator for some employees, but it may not always work in the way intended, if indeed it is intended. It may encourage people to compete by all means, fair and foul."

Rewards relating to length of service are another sticking point. Paul Osgood, a consultant at Hewitt, says: "Tenure is not conditional on or associated with ability. You can see this often in manufacturing environments, where it is a real source of concern for those that feel they do exactly the same job and are treated differently."

However, Jonathan Haskell, chief executive at benefits consultants Michael C Fina, argues that long-service awards are fair because everyone gets the same return in the end. "People don’t feel massively hard done by because they are on the bus and eventually the bus will get to the stop where they will get off. There can be no quibbling about a specific set of dates no matter what I may think about your abilities as a person." Nevertheless, if you introduce a new long service scheme, staff that are already past that milestone will feel ripped off. In this situation, Haskell advises backdating the benefit for up to 18 months.

"You do have to have some form of acknowledgement of those that have gone beforehand. Because it can cause difficulties and unfortunately envy is a human vice." Management bonuses and rewards can provoke ill-feeling like nothing else on earth. In January, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for executive pay and pensions to be kept in line with those offered to staff. Not the politics of envy, but fair, square and crucial to keeping up staff morale, the workers’ body arguing that where arrangements differ, a full explanation should be provided. Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says workers are less likely to resent boardroom excess if they understand how and why executive perks are dealt out.

"If the organisation hasn’t made an attempt to explain remuneration practices and policies, they think ‘well, I’ve got a 2% pay rise and my boss has seen his go up by a total 10%’. The organisation [must] explain that and what the principles are behind it." He adds that inequalities are often less pronounced now, thanks to that great equaliser, flexible benefits. "Nowadays with a flex scheme, you can find that the office junior has blown all his fund on a flash car and an exec with family commitments may have traded down to a people [carrier] or something like that." Relations can also turn sour when expatriate employees turn up in a country flaunting a package superior to residents’. "When organisations, especially charities, send people abroad and they are getting a lot more money than the locals, it can cause issues.

Similarly, in multinationals in general, this happens when people are doing exactly the same job but are getting different packages. Now some organisations are introducing global pay structures or not sending people out unless there is a genuine need to send people there," says Cotton. Difficulties can also crop up after a merger or acquisition, when staff from the two organisations are on disparate contracts. While employees will always covet their neighbours benefits to an extent, how can you cut down on ill will? Aside from ensuring benefits are handed out fairly, openness is the key to keeping things friendly.

Hewitt’s Osgood says: "It just happens so often through misunderstanding or lack of knowledge. There is not enough dialogue in business, so these issues get discussed and debated among employees. You often find that people have incredibly false views of people’s benefits across the business, but when they actually talk to people they can dispel some of these rumours pretty quickly. The grapevine and Chinese whispers [escalate] the politics of envy whereas dialogue breaks them down."

Case study: Toyota

Competition is the name of the game in car dealerships and a little bit of envy can go a long way when it comes to shifting motors. But at Toyota, sales incentive schemes are carefully crafted to create friendly rivalry, rather than ill feeling. Currently, the car manufacturer is dangling the carrot of a trip to Sardinia if staff reach certain sales targets. Scott Bassage, guild co-ordinator, says: "Anyone who reaches the goal gets to go.

It’s always based on an objective they can achieve – something that is a bit of a stretch but not unachievable." He adds that while people might be envious of their colleagues sunning themselves in the Mediterranean, they will not begrudge them the holiday. "If you hit your objective you get to go, so you are only pushing yourself against yourself, not a group of peers. It is totally down to the individual."

Case study: Punch Taverns

Punch Taverns introduced a share incentive plan last June, it was wary that length of service issues could be divisive.With no minimum length of service, all employees could take up the buy-one-get-one-free deal, whether they had been there for a day or a decade.

Francis Patton, customer services director, says: "As soon as anybody joins the company, they have access to the scheme and can join immediately. It just seemed the right way to go about doing it." Since then, over half the workforce have taken a stake in the pub chain. But length of service conditions "can cause problems, particularly in some new start-up companies where the share price does well very quickly," adds Patton.