First Do No Harm

Stickman First Do No HarmPrimum non nocere. The Hippocratic Oath is one of the foundational elements of any doctor’s career. As it says on Wikipedia:

“Another way to state it is that, “given an existing problem, it may be better not to do something, or even to do nothing, than to risk causing more harm than good.” It reminds the health care provider that must consider the possible harm that any intervention might do. It is invoked when debating the use of an intervention that carries an obvious risk of harm but a less certain chance of benefit.”

Imagine if this was part of an oath that compensation professionals had to take in order to work in this industry. What would it mean to you? In the name of limited time, limited experience or just a feeling of resignation, some of us may make this a lower priority than we should.

Imagine if your heart surgeon or your child’s asthma specialist, simply stopped at “good enough.” Would you support them?

Like much in the world of medicine, compensation is part science and part art. Like a scientist, we must use the data we have available and make resolute decisions that are memorialized and can remain effective for a long time. Also like a scientist, we must be willing to accept new observations, data and change our decisions as needed.

Like an artist, we must be able to see what others may not and turn that into something tangible that can be appreciated by many. Also, like a successful artist, we must know when to stop fiddling and declare our work complete.

I was reminded of this recently while working with a client who does so much so right. When speaking to the CEO, my colleagues and I made it clear that an important objective of our project was not breaking anything that already worked well. But, the company is growing and its industry is rapidly evolving. Because they are the type of company so many people love to work for, they are planning for the future before it gets here. What a thought. Even better, what an action!

When looking at solving a problem using compensation, we must be fully aware of the potential impact any new program or change to a legacy approach may have on current successes. As a consultant, I often see new “solutions” that conflict with current practices or the company’s compensation philosophy.

Since we seldom fully analyze whether pay is actually doing what was intended, we often don’t have any idea what is or isn’t working. Without this knowledge, we are like a blindfolded doctor. Our skills and expertise may be up to the task, but we don’t give ourselves a chance to succeed.

We are often challenged and sometimes pressured into implementing changes where we have either limited supporting data or worse, no confidence in the program accomplishing its goals. Imagine if your doctor agreed to do surgery before they had ran tests. What if you were given medication before being thoroughly diagnosed?

Next time you are asked (told) to make a change to pay or roll out an entirely new compensation plan, make it clear what you need to do it before you confidentally proceed. Be aware of how the change will affect other components of HR, pay and overall management of your staff. Understand the potential downsides to any program that has fantastic upside. In other words: first do no harm.