Vatican over-indulgence with incentive pay


Vatican ClockIt was reported recently that the Vatican has brought its work practices up to date. Employees must now clock in, and will be offered incentive payments based on performance.

The news conjured a comic vision of cardinals in full regalia sweeping punctiliously to the time clock, and of a torrent of Papal Bulls, Encyclicals and Motibus Propriis flooding down the printing press. Pope John XXIII's reply to a visitor who asked how many people worked in the Vatican was again much quoted. 'About half', he said.

Schadenfreude, natural in response to big bureaucracies, but good humoured as you might expect. All of us would like to see bureaucracies, other than the tax office, work more efficiently. But the introduction of incentive payments raises questions, particularly at a time when we see that these devices, when used by the masters of the universe, have set fire to their creation.

At the top end of town, incentive payments have been monstrous and their consequences disastrous. They have encouraged executives to increase short-term profit by reducing expenditure on activities central to the firm's health and by taking on heavy debt. When the companies collapsed, the executives shamelessly kept the loot. Incentive payments have been an instrument of greed.

It would be wrong to argue that incentive payments inevitably lead to this spectacularly destructive form of greed. But they generally encourage greed by embodying a venal view of the relations involved in work. Incentive payments, for example, assume that our willingness to work hard will vary in direct proportion to the remuneration we receive. The more money we get, the harder we will work; the more money we offer, the better the workers we shall find. The honey of money alone attracts worker ants to leave their holes.

When financial reward is so exalted, the other significant rewards of work are downplayed. Yet these are as central to motivation of workers and to the health of the enterprise as is its level of profit. If we have pride in the organisation in which we work because it is honest and helpful in its relations with its suppliers and clients, because relations between workers are companionable, or because the services that it provides are helpful to society, we may find ourselves more strongly motivated by these blessings than by any promise of more payment. We may also be drawn to work hard because our workplace encourages us to use our mind and skills to solve problems and allows us to work elegantly and effectively. Fun, companionship and learning are effective bonuses.

Incentive payments do have the double-edged merit of allowing managers of companies to declare what matters to them. The targets they set usually suggest that things that can easily be counted and given dollar values are the things that matter. This focus conceals from view the less tangible relations that make enterprises healthy. If managers are offered incentives to cut costs, for example, they will naturally regard their employees and the conditions that build good working relationships solely as costs. People do not matter.

In such an environment workers soon notice the lack of respect with which they are treated. In turn they will treat the enterprise with the disrespect which it merits. The minimal mutual trust and esteem needed for the enterprise to function effectively will be eroded.

Such eulogies of the intangible blessings of work may be sceptically received if they are preached in churches. Churches have a name for regarding the intrinsic value of work as a substitute for fair remuneration. When you are paid badly, even incentive payment looks good.

If the way in which churches pay their employees reflects their view of work they must offer them fair pay and conditions. But churches also believe that work within them is more than an activity undertaken for reward. It is a calling. People work for the church because they believe in what it does. They believe that their work ultimately benefits human beings and makes the world a more humane place. They also see their employees as more than individuals. They are companions in the work of a community.

If churches hold this ideal of work, then it should be reflected in the ways in which they remunerate their employees. There is a place for rewarding particularly demanding and effective work, but bonuses of this kind should generally be shared within the workplace.

It is difficult to reconcile this ideal of work with a system of incentive payments. These devalue central aspects of work and represent it purely as a financial transaction. They banish from the workplace the blessings that come from God and leave workers to the self-defeating disciplines of Caesar.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street's consulting editor. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne.




Topic tags: Vatican, work practices, time clock, remuneration, greed, pope, pay



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Existing comments

I work in Parish Pastoral Ministry and I can assure readers that I receive a very basic salary considering my qualifications and experience. I have always seen working for the Church as a vocation. I am not sure all our workers, particularly in education where I came from, see their role as a vocation even though I like to think they do. I must admit I was startled by the headline. I hope and pray the Church never goes down that very slippery path.We are seeing, as Andrew has observed, the disasters and resultant pain many innocent people are suffering from the consequences of such greed in the capitalist world. Lord spare us from a similar mess in the Church!

Gavin O'Brien | 21 November 2008

As usual, Andrew, you are 'spot on'. Many of us are sick of the hierarchy looking on Jesus' (and our) Church as a football club or a business and non-clergy as consumers. We wish they would take their profit and walk away.

Kay Cole | 21 November 2008

It's not often that we see the complex matters covered in this article dealt with, with such clarity and brevity. In all matters pertaining to work, paid or unpaid, we should 'bridle at injustice'.
Claude Rigney | 22 November 2008

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