I worked at BT, the UK phone company, for nearly ten years—from graduation to when I was 30. I had five roles during that time and got promoted twice. Despite being a good and hard worker, I ended up in the wrong job entirely. I became hideously disengaged and ultimately left. The culprit? Ambition combined with hierarchically differentiated employee perks.
I loved my college years studying engineering at London South Bank University. It had a richly diverse campus full of colour, new interests, and exciting people to learn from. Because I loved what I was doing, I worked hard, and because I worked hard, I did well. I graduated with a first in 1992.
Upon leaving, I did the usual graduate milk round. I saw lots of companies—big and small—and took a graduate job in software development at BT. It was a good, sensible company with lots of prospects and a well-respected graduate development programme to join.
I worked hard there, taking every opportunity I could to be creative and go the extra mile. In a couple of years, I was rewarded with a promotion to Level 2 Manager. It meant moving to a different division, but it was a step up, and it included a pay rise as well as more responsibility. I was over the moon. Plus, I’d still be running software development projects, which was what I loved and what I was good at.
But before long, I wanted more
I was in that job another couple of years, making a decent name for myself as a hard-working, safe pair of hands when I started to get itchy for a promotion again. I know we think it’s just millennials who want to be promoted all the time, but I’m Gen X, and I was the same.
What was different this time is that I was looking for a level three manager’s role. They were special. When you hit level three, you were moved onto a new contract, what BT called a PCG-U contract. That meant special new perks!
These included a £200 car allowance (basically a pay raise by a different name). Amongst a few other things, you would get—wait for it. . . THREE FREE PHONE EXTENSION SOCKETS professionally installed at home by a BT engineer. Here was the company saying very explicitly that level three managers were unique, a cut above the rest, and worthy of special treatment and exclusive perks.
Now, the fact that I lived in a relatively small apartment and didn’t have three rooms to put extension sockets in didn’t put me off—I could always stick one in the bathroom. Neither did the fact that it was now 1997 and cordless phones were becoming quite prevalent, negating the need for extension sockets in the first place.
So, I set out with a mission to get promoted at all costs. Every Friday, BT’s “Job News” listing came to the office. Each week, I hurriedly scoured for level three manager jobs and applied to every one I could find.
And I got what I wanted
It wasn’t long before my persistence was rewarded, and I got the promotion I wanted. I got a level three job in—wait for it—Regulatory Affairs. I would be an Interconnect Analyst examining phone call charges between all of BT’s subsidiaries, joint ventures, and competitors around Europe.
But not what I needed
Now you’ll spot that this was pretty far from my specialist subject of software engineering and project management. Rather than a job working with teams of people and exciting plans to drive, it was an isolated, introverted job sitting quietly in a corner with Excel. Rather than problem-solving and producing creative solutions by the seat of my pants, I’d be spending my time concentrating quietly on minute differences between telephone calling plans. Naturally, I hated it.
The days began to drag within weeks of my starting that job. I began to look at the mole on my left arm and wonder if it was getting bigger.
I thought I might be becoming gluten intolerant as I always felt a bit off in the afternoon.
And I started looking for every reason and excuse I could to shorten my work day, get out from the office or do something less tedious and more suited to my skills.
In short, I’d gone from super-engaged, hard-working, can-do-anything Glenn to a disengaged, miserable, and unhappy member of staff—all in the space of a few months. All of this happened while I was working in the same company at a better grade with more money and those fantastically better perks—but in the wrong job entirely.
You don’t need differentiated perks to encourage career mobility
We all want to be appreciated at work for our skills and effort. Many of us see promotions and progress as critical markers of that appreciation. If we’re progressing through the ranks of the organisation, we’re proving to ourselves—and everyone else—how well we are doing.
There is already a huge force of gravity towards progress and promotion. It’s a draw that works well a lot of the time and is also responsible for getting some people into the wrong job. How many fantastic specialists do we know who make terrible people managers? All because they become obsessed with the idea that having a team to lead is the critical marker of progression?
Differentiated benefits, where you layer on increasing levels of perks as people move up the hierarchy, adds even more power to this natural force. It tells everyone that the organisation is hierarchically minded, and it puts tangible, extrinsic rewards where they aren’t needed. They also create a divide between layers of management and those divides are destructive. They create barriers and hamper the effective two-way communication that organisations need to thrive.
So my advice is to keep your employee benefits structure flat and straightforward.
Avoid creating a multi-class system that creates divisions between employees and adds even more pressure on careers. As a bonus, you can avoid hideously complex benefits management technology, which is a drain on HR’s time and money, too. How’s that for a double win?
Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership, technology and the future of work weekly at www.glennelliott.me.
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