To Merit or Not to Merit

This semester, the Faculty Senate is taking under consideration the report of the Merit Pay Task Force. Merit pay is a perennial question with the faculty, and it’s a controversial question with staff as well.

Even whether to have merit pay is disputed, with a nearly a 50-50 split in opinion. Then there is the issue of bonus v. base pay. This is not even getting to the really thorny parts of annual v. multi-year and the kind of evaluation system necessary to determine eligibility. Size matters, too.

Why do we care so much, especially if the amounts are not large? Is it sheer self-interest?

I don’t think so. There are other issues that affect our material well-being but which are not so divisive or emotional. I really think it has to do with our basic human (or primate) nature. We care about fairness.

My favorite research surrounding equity and the importance of fairness involves monkeys. I always used it in Econ 252: Principles of Microeconomics. A research project director “paid” capuchin monkeys for work performed (pushing a lever) with cucumber slices. Monkeys happily went about their work. Then the researcher began paying some of the monkeys with more desirable grapes. Monkey work habits deteriorated rapidly. Violations of the norms of fairness resulted in a noticeable loss of efficiency! Then the researcher began randomly distributing the coveted grapes to a few monkeys with no lever pushing whatsoever required. The working stiffs revolted. Monkeys not only refused to work but began a food fight; they threw their earned cukes at the favored monkeys.

Definitely, a deterioration of workplace morale!

Now I am not saying that we are all a bunch of monkeys but, as we revisit the issue of merit pay, we do need to remain in touch with our inner primate. We all want to be treated fairly.