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Valuing an employee’s contribution

By Sarah Smith

Valuing an employee’s worth to any organization, be it in the public or private sector, is tricky business.

And it’s highly controversial.

Should all custodians do the same thing and get paid the same? (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Does an employer look at the job description or the person in the job?

Hubbard County is embarking down that slippery slope, considering a specialist to perform a wage compensation review.

But the county’s journey through the process could have specific implications for businesses, large and small, by the time the dust settles.

And there will be resistance, county coordinator Debbie Thompson anticipates.

“Any time you start to discuss people’s wages it gets very controversial,” Thompson said.

The county recently interviewed three separate consultants vying for the task, which has not been attempted since 1990.

“It involves a lot,” Hubbard County board chair Cal Johannsen agreed. “Our system in place got screwed up over the years.”

Each of the county’s 166 positions will undergo a microscopic look. Currently there are 76 different job descriptions for those jobs. And therein lays the problem.

Does a janitor get paid the same amount as a custodian?

Is a clerk-typist in one office as valuable as a comparable position in a different department?

Complicating the process is that the county has both union employees, represented under collective bargaining agreements, and non-union employees. For the last decade, the county has tried to treat both groups equally, giving equal annual raises and benefits.

“Union positions don’t follow the compensation grid because they’ve been negotiated,” Thompson said.

A whole industry of specialists has sprung up, all performing job classification and compensation studies. Many consultants are former government employees.

And as many methods of evaluating employees have also been used. Most are based on a point system of responsibilities. Others are based on what decisions employees make, and the hierarchy of work. Education and experience also factor in. Performance can also be a consideration.

Employees at the low end of the spectrum aren’t given a lot of latitude in decision-making. Those at the opposite end are the policy-makers. The complexity of the decisions these employees make corresponds with the amount of compensaion they get.

“Job descriptions are a very important component,” said consultant Greg Mangold in his pitch to the board. “They are the spine of a good classification and compensation system.”

The county has a seven-member classification committee. Ideally, Johannsen would like to see it abolished once a new system is in place. His six years on it have felt like a lifetime, he remarked at the board session.

But it may be necessary to keep the committee. Every time an employee gets responsibilities not contemplated in either the job description or union contract, the employee seeks more points and hence, more compensation.

On the other hand, there’s a perception of internal bias. An aggressive department head can lobby on behalf of a certain employee.

And that’s where Johannsen thinks the system got out of whack.

Highly subjective decisions are what elevate one employee above another.

“Custodial staff is the same everywhere,” Johannsen said. “But it’s pretty hard to compare law enforcement with anything (in the private sector) but law enforcement.”

Benchmark job descriptions only go so far, along with commensurate pay.

Commissioner Kathy Grell pointed out that in the last five years, private sector jobs “have remained stagnant” while government keeps growing, causing a growing divide.

And benefits figure in.

“Our health insurance has gotten to be an $18,000 benefit,” Johannsen said.

As the process begins, the county has four goals in mind:

n Job description development

n A review of the point system

n Completion of a market study of jobs

n A recommendation for an ongoing classification system of positions in the future.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

(218) 732-3364