04 May 2015 17:56 IST

The Batch-mate benchmark syndrome

Why do professionals compare their status, titles, compensation?

In the last two decades of hiring campus graduates both from business schools and engineering campuses and laterals with experience, I have come across an increasing tendency of what I would like to call the “classmate benchmark syndrome.” Simply defined, this represents a tendency on the part of professionals to compare their status, titles, compensation and career growth with their classmates even if these classmates may have gone to work in different industries, domains and companies. There is this constant comparison factor at work during job switches. Where classmates work as colleagues in the same company, this comparison happens during salary reviews and promotions.

Human tendency

There is nothing right or wrong about doing this as this is merely a human tendency to take stock of where one is vis-à-vis another we believe is doing a similar job.

Interestingly enough, many employee engagement surveys that companies use focus on many different aspects of the organisational life that are believed to have an impact on engagement, such as career, compensation and communication. More often than not, employee perception on compensation is sought to be obtained on two aspects: (a) how do they perceive their compensation in relation to the market (b) how do they perceive their compensation with respect to their peers in the company. It is rather ironic that during such surveys, some smart employees respond to the second question by responding, “Please share the peer salary information and we will let you know how it compares.” Despite being amused, understandably, many organisations have dropped this question from the survey. Therefore, there does not seem anything illogical in employees comparing constantly where they stand with regards to their colleagues. This becomes even more pronounced when it comes to batchmates or classmates. At a psychological level, this is fully understandable. The issues that drive this phenomenon involve

“I am no less smart than my classmates, so how can I get anything less and do a job that is lower ranked than my batch mates.”

“In fact, I did much better than my classmates in studies. How can I be paid less or my career grow slower? “

“It is all not fair until this imbalance is squared up and my compensation and levels are adjusted immediately.”

Organisational reality

HR professionals will vouch for the fact that this is a constant conversation with people they hire in batches from the same campus. This can be a lot more pronounced in cases where an employee has passed out of a top-tier campus and a few years into work notices that his or her salary is less than peers who passed from a less reputed college.

Organisational reality is very different and recently, efforts are made by HR teams to clarify during employee induction programmes that compensation is a function of performance and not pedigree. Qualifications are the passport to entry and advancement in careers and commensurate compensation is a function of performance on the job over a period of time. At a logical level employees may appreciate this, but at a psychological level, these comparisons continue to haunt them and eventually disengage them.

There may also be another way to look at this. The type of industry, the company in that industry, how well this company is doing and other factors also determine how career and compensation grow over time. In recent times, organisations are also recognising that just much like the marketing function manages customers by segmentation, the HR function also needs to segment employees based on a set of criteria and administer people programmes differentially. And this can also cause a different trajectory for employees within the same organisation depending on which segment they are placed in.

Performance

Now what is the way out for this problem? In my view, the most powerful weapon employees have for addressing this issue is their performance. And performance is not about working longer and harder. It is about doing the following:

Raising one’s own performance bar. After all, excellence is competing with oneself, not others.

Being on the top of technology and domains that are most in demand. Skill-based compensation is becoming the order of the day.

Stopping comparisons with batchmates and classmates to avoid ulcers and hypertension. Instead, focus on building a personal brand and be known for competence, reliability, and collaboration.

Building both credibility and visibility within the organisation. Do not be a ‘homely sage’ but look for opportunities to showcase your strengths and contributions. This is far from bragging about oneself but branding oneself. The difference is in knowing where, when and how much.

Learning to deal with disappointments with poise.

Remember, even in animal kingdom, God did not make everyone equal – some are striped and some are spotted! Keep in mind that not everything in life is a well-defined formula. Life is about coping and making the best of the opportunities, and not about griping and losing sleep.

So, next time, when you are tempted to compare and feel low, walk over and congratulate the colleague and not fret and fume. And muster your energy and marshal your determination to excel in what you are doing. Sooner than later, you will not have to compare. You will be handsomely rewarded beyond your expectations.