Small raise avoids big problem

When employees step up and fill in for workers on a leave, reward them (Guest commentary)
By Laura Cumming
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/25/2011

Recently, I was reading a summer issue of Canadian HR Reporter — specifically Todd Humber’s article “Where do our story ideas come from?” (July 18, 2011.)

I am glad you wrote about this as I often wondered how you came up with the current topics and trends I read in each issue. Many of the articles have helped back me up when I was trying to convince higher executives that something they were doing was incorrect or misguided.

I would fight my case, be rejected and then see the topic in your paper. I would show them the article and, many times, they would then start to follow my recommendations. To say this was a bad system is correct but at least issues were moved along for the good of the company and employees.

One of the issues I dealt with at my previous workplace (I moved jobs in April) was salary increases given to employees when they helped cover a maternity leave. I was sure this only happened at my company, as it wasn’t very good for employee morale, but then I started talking to other professionals, here in Winnipeg, who said this also occurs at their organizations — and it bothered them .

Let me explain what happens. Employee A goes on maternity leave for one year so the company has employee B, a person in a relatively lesser position, train to do most of employee A’s work. Anything that cannot be done by employee B is then handled by the supervisor of employee A. A term employee is also hired (employee C), not to fill the open position but to complete the more entry level work employee B used to handle.

So, the company can pay less for employee C and then only give employee B a $2,000 raise for the year. The company then feels it is saving money as it is not paying the equal amount for a person like employee A. When employee A comes back, employee C’s term ends and she leaves the company. So employee A and C go back to their normal lives but employee B suffers.

Employee B goes back to the job he had before the maternity leave, even though he has had a taste of more challenging work and slightly better pay — so this makes him unhappy and unfulfilled. His $2,000 salary increase also goes away, as it was only in place during the leave (which was explained to him at the start of the project, to which he had originally agreed).

I have also found the $2,000 extra salary for the year looks great to employee B at the beginning of this leave but by the end he is feeling very underpaid, as he believes employee A made more than $2,000 per year more than he did and, to be honest, he is right.

After employee A comes back, I found it usually takes about two to three months before you start to hear rumblings from employee B. A whole host of problems arise: he feels undervalued, he finds fault in many things employee A does as he feels he did the job better (rightfully or wrongfully) and he feels underpaid.

Many times, I have seen employee B still being asked to do some of the duties he took on during the leave, without the extra salary. The company has employee B continue to do some of the work as this will free up employee A to do other work. In many cases, employees A and B were from the same department.

This also causes an erosion of employee morale as they still need to work in the same department when employee A returns. By this time, others in the department have seen employee B doing the work and, in some cases, doing it better. This can cause a poisonous work environment, especially when other employees in the department takes sides.

I have seen many cases where employee B leaves the company about six months after the leave has ended, as he is now capable of doing a higher level of work and wants to continue to do this work and make more money. In the few cases where employee B stays, he is usually not happy.

The end result? The company did not save as much money as it thought it did. When an employee leaves, it needs to put in the time and money to recruit, hire and train a replacement. It also loses the employee’s company knowledge and experience. The employer is also losing an employee who has shown you he is capable of more challenging work. Since he was picked in the first place to cover the leave, he was likely a valuable employee with promise. But now he is being traded for an “unknown.”

One of my recommendations to the executive team was to not have employee B go back to his old job entirely. Allow him to have more challenging work, possibly in or for another department, but ensure he can keep the extra $2,000. It’s a small price to pay to keep good employees you know can move ahead and are willing to do these types of covers. Also, $2,000 is much less than all the recruitment and mediating issues that may come down the road and, in the end, you get an employee who is doing more and is fulfilled.

Laura Cumming is director of HR for the Archdiocese of Winnipeg.

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