Merit pay system calls into question ‘subjective’ ranking system


G-Jun Yam

Members of the United Staff of Columbia College rallied Dec. 8 in opposition of a merit pay system, which they refuse to consider without first-recieving a cost-of-living raise, as reported Dec. 14, 2015 by The Chronicle.

By Campus Editor

A number of full-time, nonunion staff members say they have found inadequate information and loopholes in the merit pay evaluation system introduced by the college on Jan. 12.

The college will be allocating 2 percent of the salary for all eligible full-time staff to be distributed to each department for potential raises for the 208 eligible applicants, according to a Jan. 12 emailed announcement sent to faculty and staff. 

“They introduced a system that is flawed and has a lot of implicit subjectivity to it,” said a source who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.

This is the first time the college is implementing a standardized and measurable review process to determine salary increases, according to the Jan. 12 email. College spokeswoman Cara Birch said practices previously varied by department but are now consistent collegewide. 

Michelle Gates, CFO and vice president of Business Affairs, and Stan Wearden, senior vice president and provost, did not comment for this story as of press time.

Another source, who asked to stay anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said there are concerns about inconsistent interpretation of performance standards. The source said one top-performing employee might not rank as highly as a lesser-performing employee who works for another supervisor who ranks everyone highly, leaving employees at the “mercy of subjectivity.”

“While I appreciate the raise, it frustrates me that there are not clear guidelines for the sustainability of the merit system,” the second anonymous source said.  “I think an across-the-board cost-of-living increase would show more integrity and transparency by the administration.”

Birch said there are specifications included in evaluations and performance reviews and ratings to follow for both the faculty and staff, adding that it is a “give-and-take” process. 

She said evaluations and ratings are about having an open discussion with the supervisor or department chair about improvements and accomplishments, adding the checks and balances process comes from the employees or faculty themselves during the discussion. 

“No system is perfect,” Birch said. “This is the first time we are implementing this [type of system], so if there is going to be things that change, things will change, but it is up to the employees and individual circumstances to help shape that.”

Many department chairs and supervisors completed the evaluations by Nov. 30 before they were informed about the implementation of the merit pay system, which has led some to question whether adequate funds will be allocated to departments to support those eligible for salary increases based on their rankings. 

Human Resources and the budget office extended the deadline for performance review submissions until Jan. 22, according to a FAQ email sent out by the college on Jan.12. 

Birch said if a certain department did not have enough funds to support those eligible, then that department would have to reduce the salary increases for those eligible to match the total amount of funds allocated to the department.

The second anonymous source said no instruction was given that the review processes would dictate merit raises, adding that dialogue may have been different during those review processes if staff knew about the new system. 

“If staff are allowed to go into the review process with a clear understanding about the merit process, we can develop a sustainable system that does not threaten disenfranchising more staff,” the second anonymous source said.

The new system could also “discourage” chairs and supervisors from giving staff high rankings in the future for fear of depleting the allocated funding and shortchanging all others. 

Another concern among eligible staff members is the college’s pool of raises—2 percent of the base salary for eligible employees in a particular department—is insufficient to provide a 2.5–5 percent raise for exceptional performers with high salaries, the first anonymous source said. 

Birch affirmed that an exceptional ranking should be considered “rare,” a statement previously expressed in the Jan. 12 email sent out to faculty and staff regarding the merit pay system. 

The ranking system, described by some as “morale-breaking,” is said to have the potential to create a competitive atmosphere between colleagues; for example, if someone receives a ranking higher  than 2 percent, that employee chips away at other colleague merit pay. 

As the United Staff of Columbia College nears its third year of contract negotiations with the college, the timing of the announcement of the merit pay system for nonunion, full-time staff members has led some to question the staff union’s efforts for across-the-board increases for its members, who have not received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2012, as reported Jan. 25 by

The Chronicle.

Some staff members believe the administration has their best interests in mind and that the college’s current higher-ups inherited an “awful mess,” but that they need to make decisions more transparently and informatively. 

“The college understands that performance-based increases [are] a new process,” Birch said in an emailed statement. “So we continue to encourage and welcome all nonunion staff members to have conversations with their supervisors about their specific questions or concerns.”