Is MARS a good system for CERN?

The advancement system at CERN: from its beginnings to now

For the first thirty years of its existence, the Organization had an advancement system “by seniority” based on “grades”. At the end of the eighties, a third of the staff found themselves blocked at the end of a grade, which was a demotivating factor for them. This is why, in 1991, a tool for assessing performance, MOAS, was created. This new system, introducing the notion of career paths, was based on a promotion policy meant to create new motivating factors. Since then, MAPS has replaced MOAS and, on 1st January 2007, MARS was implemented in the framework of the previous five-yearly review.However, twenty years after the introduction of MOAS, we are having doubts about these “new motivating factors”. Indeed, over this period, the different Staff Association surveys showed that career evolution remained a subject of great concern for the staff, placing this topic at the top of the list of priorities to be dealt with by the Staff Association.

The annual interview is particularly appreciated by staff members and supervisors alike. The staff member and supervisor can discuss the work, available resources, objectives, and training needs. Later on in the process the staff member has the opportunity to comment on his hierarchy’s assessment of him. Most CERN staff appreciate this annual interview, which corresponds to good management practice. However, the close link between MARS and advancement is sometimes source of a certain tenseness.

When MARS was introduced in 2007, the value of a step went from 2% to 1.3% of basic salary, but the advancement budget was preserved. Distribution guidelines of the number of available steps (minima and maxima) are set for the Departments. This means that, in principle, the MARS system imposes the award of one step only to at least a quarter of the population.

Additional steps

Additional financing of the advancement budget came from a decision by CERN Council in 2006. It consisted in transferring to this budget the savings made by replacing the non-residence allowance by the international indemnity. In 2009 and 2010, the injection of 250 additional steps loosened up a MARS system that had too many constraints.

This supplementary injection allowed supervisors to correctly reward merit while respecting the directives imposed. It is normal that a maximum of the distribution should be around two steps to be compatible with the situation that prevailed in the MAPS system, even though the latter system attached more importance to teamwork and group responsibility.

Protecting the advancement budget

MARS succeeded in protecting the advancement budget by defining it by career path and eligible person. The recognition of merit does not appear to be distributed uniformly throughout the career paths, as clearly indicated in Table 1, which shows the budget spent in each career path for the 2010 exercise (in percentage) compared to the “forecasted” number of available steps (two per eligible staff member + an amount proportional to the eligible persons for the additional budget). In career paths A to D the steps budget has not been completely used, while staff members in career paths E and F seem to be particularly meritorious. We note the “deficits” in career path G and, in particular, in the ECE. Are staff members in these bands and career paths less meritorious than the others?

 Interpreting the MARS exercises from 2007 to 2010

By studying the results of the past four advancement exercises from 2007 to 2010 (Fig. 1), we can observe that to properly reward merit, a sufficient budget is necessary, or at least one superior to the minimum number of steps, which is equal to twice the number of eligible staff members in bands a, b, and c, plus the number of eligible staff members in the ECE. Without these additional steps, supervisors are reduced to managing the shortage.

Table 1: Distribution of the percentage of the advancement budget used in 2010 in bands a, b, and c per career path and globally for the ECE.

Fig. 1: Distribution of steps in 2007-2010

The 2011 MARS exercise – what can we expect?

At the beginning of February, the Enlarged Directorate (Director-General, Directors, and Department Heads) decided that, for the 2011 MARS exercise, there will be an additional 125 steps injected into the “normal” advancement budget, which foresees two steps per eligible person in bands a, b, and c, and one step per eligible person in the ECE. This is a 50% decrease in the number of additional steps compared to 2010, which will put supervisors in a difficult position. On numerous occasions, they have underlined the need for a significant addition to the advancement budget in order to properly reward merit without unnecessarily demotivating a large number of staff.

The Directorate even briefly thought about fixing the maximum of the distribution of steps at the value of “one step” in order to better reward merit by favouring “high-fliers”. Such a measure would have been particularly inopportune only two months after the Director-General praised to CERN Council the devotion and skills of all staff, thanks to whom we obtained wonderful results from the LHC in 2010, and thanked them by granting all staff members a bonus of 1000 CHF. Fortunately this measure was abandoned, at least for this year. It is certain that, combined with the decrease in the number of additional steps (250 to 125), this decision would have been a catastrophic sign to the staff who must continue to give the best of themselves over the coming months, with their share of challenges and problems to solve.

Increase the advancement budget in 2011 – Yes, but where and how?

After the results of the 2010 five-yearly review, we expected a significant increase in the 2011 advancement budget compared to that in 2010. This is the case. Indeed, the step value has increased like the basic salaries in career paths D, and E, F, and G (which have been increased by 1% and 2% respectively). Furthermore, the value of the step in career paths F and G has been increased to 1.37% and 1.36 respectively of the value of the entry step of the career path. We should remember, however, that this measure corresponds to a fair realignment of the value of the step in F and G to the same percentage as that in effect since 2007 in all other career paths. All of this to conclude that the advancement budget has increased in particular in career paths F and G.

Beware, danger

Let us note, furthermore, that in previous exercises, additional steps tended to be used to reward merit in career paths E and F (see, in particular, table 1), and the decrease from 250 (in 2009 and 2010) to 125 additional steps foreseen for this exercise could be perceived as a “double penalty” for career paths A to C. Indeed these career paths have not benefited from a salary increase in 2011, unlike career paths E to F. Why this reduction of 125 steps, what is the difference between now and 2010 as far as the expected transfer of savings is concerned, and that will become fully into effect as of 2015? Some may be under the impression that this increase in the advancement budget in F and G is financed partly by the reduction in the number of steps, which corresponds to the transfer from one group of staff to another. Supervisors must therefore take particular care to reward in a fair and transparent manner all their collaborators, including those who are “less visible” or do not draw attention to themselves.

The Staff Association has already reacted by pointing out to the Management that for the 2011 MARS exercise 250 additional steps should be available, as in 2009 and 2010. The correlation between the increase in the advancement budgets in F and G and the decrease in the number of additional steps foreseen for the whole of the staff is particularly unfortunate and will be perceived by many as a double penalty. The Staff Association will continue to denounce this situation in the coming days and sincerely hopes that a favourable outcome can be found for everyone.

MARS, a system ill-adapted to CERN

The Management and certain Department Heads seem to want more differentiation in the distribution of steps, with a maximum set at “one step”. The Staff Association considers that the real threshold for the recognition of satisfactory work in the MARS system is for all staff members the level of performance described as “particularly meritorious” leading to an advancement of two steps.

For half a century the success of CERN has been attributed to the complementary nature of the skills, the collaboration between individuals, the sharing of tasks and know-how and free flow of information thanks to open exchanges. To break this mechanism and replace it with an assessment of individual merit in the framework of a system with constraints (minimum x% for “one step”, between y% and z% for “two steps”, etc.) is absurd. If it is not used with extreme moderation, as between 2007 and 2010, when “one-step punishments” were minimized thanks to additional steps, such a system will remain dominated by too much subjectivity when assessing people, which is seen as an open door to partiality. The result is already known: too much individualism, pointless competition, increased jealousy, a feeling of injustice, even insecurity. All this can only lead to a loss of motivation for a large proportion of the staff, i.e. the opposite effect of the initial objectives.

Since the beginning, the Staff Association has wondered if it is really worth spending so many resources and so much time on a system which truly advantages only a minority of the staff (the “high-fliers” who receive three or more additional steps). Who has performed an evaluation to verify whether the objectives of the MARS system have been achieved and to determine where is its added value? Is a system solely based on individual merit adapted to a scientific organization like CERN? For us the answer is “NO!” and we will make this known.

by Association du personnel