The fraud of discretionary effort

When I write about employee engagement, I tend to hear the same response, “it’s about driving performance”. Normally inferring that this is how HR can demonstrate that it is “adding value” and “being commercial”.

Which is nice….

Let’s take a far-reaching view of return on (human) capital. You take employees, you pay them nothing and you make them work every single day of their lives.

That’s slavery. But it is one hell of a return on investment.

Now I’m not for one minute suggesting that the supporters of employee engagement are in any way advocating bonded labour, I merely raise it as a starting reference point of what we mean when we talk about “adding value” through human capital.

Pretty much any employee engagement plan talks about discretionary effort. What is discretionary effort? Essentially it’s about asking people to give more than the financial expectation we have placed upon our working relationship.

So here’s the thing.

Let’s imagine we’re in the queue to get an ice-cream. We may smile, joke or even chat up the vendor hoping to get an additional scoop. But ultimately if we pay for two and get three, then we’re happy. If we pay for two and get one, we complain.

But what if we pay for two and get two? Well that’s the expectation. Isn’t it?

If we believe we are paying fairly for work, then what we pay should equal the return that we get. Shouldn’t it?  When we set out to recruit, we say “this is what we want you to do, this is how we want you to behave and this is what we are going to pay you”.

And then when someone joins we say, “Surprise! That’s just the minimum expectation. We actually expect you to do a whole lot more or we’ll term you disengaged. And nobody round here wants to be in the disengaged box…..”

That’s paying for two scoops and being disappointed that you didn’t get three.

If you want to measure something, measure how much potential value your organisation is destroying in the people who it employed to do the job. My guess is you’re paying them already for “discretionary effort” and what you’re not getting it, you’re blaming them.

Employee engagement, the drive for discretionary effort is simply a way of placing the responsibility on employees for the failure of the organisation to have fair expectations for fair reward.

Or to put it simply;

If you’re not getting what you paid for deal with it,

If you want more, pay more,

And never expect to get something for free.

Comments are closed.