Bonus day is a fascinating time for people-watching.
Pre-exam jitters. Gallows humour. Pretending to be busy while running down the clock until their turn.
Will the number match their mental accounting?
A pleasant surprise on the upside? A disheartening gap between expectation and reality?
Would the number be used to send a message about their future at the firm?
“Have a big reward” equals we would really like you to stay.
“Here is a paltry token” means we don’t care whether you stay or go.
“No bonus this year” is a firm steer towards the exit.
“Profits are high, but bonuses are small” states senior management don’t value staff.
“You were only eligible for n%, but we managed to get you a bit more” says any rules are subjectively applied. Do it for one, they could do it for all. Every time. But they consciously choose not to.
The C-suite exec sat in a goldfish bowl meeting room, located in the centre of the open-plan office. Surrounded by a sea of hot desks, for those who managed to purloin a seat, and overcrowded breakout areas for the many who could not.
It was the first day since the end of the pandemic that all permanent staff were on site concurrently. The vibe wasn’t that of a school reunion nor wedding get-together, with old friends renewing their acquaintance. More a feeling of reluctantly lining up to endure a high school weekend detention or an airport immigration queue during peak school holiday travel season.
The choice of venue forced each member of staff to parade past all their colleagues to the glass-sided meeting room. Some marched. Some glided. Some shuffled. Some stumbled.
Sitting on full display for the amusement and entertainment of the gawkers, gossips, and rubberneckers as each staff member received their ten-minute single serving of attention from the big boss. Painted on smiles and poker faces. For many of the staff, this would be their only interaction with the C-suite all year. Aside perhaps from the unwanted invitations and wandering hands at the office Summer ball or Christmas party.
Once their number had been revealed, staff then endured the return journey back to their seat.
Mostly resigned to humouring the ridiculous ritual of performance management theatre.
This year I happened to be the last to have my bonus interview.
The exec’s toadies and favourites had all been bonused first up. Grins and high fives to colleagues as they strutted back to their desks, before grabbing their coats and disappearing for an evening of debauchery.
For days afterwards, there would be implausible tales of attempting to outdo the legends of the City workers of yore on bonus day. Bodyshots and bail. High-stakes poker and high-price prostitutes. Cocaine. Strippers. Ferraris all around. Little boys pretending to be big men.
The exec looked tired. I was the only thing that stood between him and a well-earned drink at the pub. It isn’t every day he was forced to slum it with the plebs, peons, and peasants… even if today he got to play the part of a benevolent Father Christmas distributing gifts to the unwashed masses.
The room smelled of nerves, body odour, and the faint whiff of cologne reminiscent of tear gas. I sat in the chair opposite and gave the exec my full attention. Ignoring the leers, looks, glares, and stares from the assembled audience.
With a forced smile and a heavy sigh, the C-suite exec picked up a greasy sweat-stained document and proceeded to spend six of the allotted ten minutes reading aloud umpteen pages of boilerplate legalese, human resource policy, and administrivia. Tax implications. How to file a grievance over workplace bullying or discrimination. How to become a whistleblower.
At the bottom of the last page the exec paused, asked if I had questions, and then breathed a sign of relief when I shook my head.
“The firm knows times are tough. Costs of living are rising. People are struggling. Therefore we have awarded all permanent staff the same fixed percentage increase to their base salary.”
He paused magnanimously, waiting for the obligatory fawning and gratitude.
Instead, I asked what percentage increase had been awarded?
He responded with a single-digit number.
Then I asked what the annual inflation rate was currently running at?
He thought for a moment, and respond with a low two-digit figure.
Finally, I asked him to subtract the percentage payrise from the percentage inflation.
The exec’s lips silently moved as his face took on the expression of intense concentration, attempting to calculate the sum on his fingers. After a couple of false starts, he victoriously declared the answer.
I queried whether the intended outcome had been to give staff a pay cut in purchasing power terms? Perform the same work, but receive less reward for their efforts? In effect, asking their families to “do less with less” on the lifestyle front.
The C-suiter stuttered and started like an ancient two-stroke lawn mower, incoherently attempting to spin a response that could explain away the devastatingly simple conclusion he had mathematically proven.
After thirty seconds, he gave up and moved on to the subject of non-recurring discretionary bonuses.
Rapidly running through the firm’s diligent and comprehensive process of setting objectives and key results, performance appraisals, 360 degree feedback sessions, and ultimately the award of bonuses.
He paused, fearfully asking whether I had any questions, as his HR approved script demanded?
I politely enquired when management had been required to submit their rankings of staff for the bonus round? I already knew the answer, having been asked to rank and rate my own staff.
Then I asked when the evaluation of OKRs and 360 degree feedback sessions had taken place?
With a raised eyebrow, I asked him how the performance appraisal process contributed to the bonus award?
The exec looked at his shoes and didn’t respond. The silence stretched, becoming uncomfortable. I waited him out.
After a minute, he conceded that it did not.
An alarm on the exec’s watch went off. My allocated ten minutes of his attention had been reached.
The exec stood, muttering a small prayer of thanks to his deity of choice that the day was over. Then appeared to realise he had not yet achieved the purpose of the meeting, communicating whether or not I had been awarded a bonus.
“You have been awarded the maximum bonus permitted under the terms of your employment contract. The feedback was universally positive, you are a star performer.
The consistent message was to keep doing what you’re doing. Only do more of it. And do it faster.”
I looked at him some more, as he started to fidget.
“However, after cross-matching hot desk bookings with building security pass logs, we determined that you have not attended the office as often as management has demanded. Therefore we reduced the bonus payable by 10%, as an example to yourself and others that the flexible working conditions of the pandemic were a temporary aberration, not a new normal.”
I raised another sceptical eyebrow, surveying the overcrowded high priced office space outside the meeting room.
“Oh, don’t worry about finding a seat. The pandemic revealed that virtually all desk jobs can be successfully performed from anywhere. By anyone. Development is being offshored to Poland. Back office operations to India. There will soon be plenty of desk space available, until at least the end of our building lease.”
I stared at the exec. He muttered something about being late for a very important meeting, then scarpering towards the lifts before I had a chance to say thank you for the pay rise or the bonus.
The assembled staff shared a mixture of smirks and troubled expressions. Few had heard the detail of my discussion in the far from soundproof meeting room. But most recognised in the exec’s chagrinned body language that he had been caught doing something he would have preferred to hide.
I thought briefly about having been taxed 10% of my bonus for working from home too often.
Mentally, I ran the numbers I often incurred when coming to the office. Public transport. Dry cleaning. Buying lunch to escape the office. Buying takeaway for dinner because most days by the time I returned home I was done, just wanting the world to stop so I could get off.
The aggregate cost of attendance far exceeded the benefits, and the foregone bonus for that matter.
My inner saboteur chortled that I would happily pay double the amount my bonus had been docked to not have to go to the office at all. He was right. The thought made me smile as I exited the goldfish bowl.
On the way home, I stopped in at the combined leaving drinks for several colleagues who had opted not to wait until bonus day to stage their escape. I got to talking with the owner of a consultancy specialising in onshoring niche professionals from India to work for financial services and technology firms in the UK.
He described a surprising situation, where his firm was now having great difficulty finding workers willing to relocate to London. They were able to obtain low six-figure wages at home, off a lower cost of living and with lower taxes, which meant the financial upside to their relocating here was marginal at best.
By contrast, those same workers were happy to move their families to Dubai, Geneva, New York, San José, or Sydney. Locales where higher wages more than offset the additional living costs.
As the drinks flowed, my colleagues celebrated or commiserated with each other about how they had fared on bonus day. It would be a month before those who had salary-sacrificed their bonus saw it arrive in full in their pension accounts. Those lacking the patience to delay gratification would receive a far smaller amount in their bank account around the same date.
At that point, the golden handcuffs became the loosest they would be all year. The cost of changing jobs in terms of bonuses forgone and stock options cancelled would be minimised.
More than a few were looking to jump before they were pushed out the door.
Desiring to take control of their destiny.
Valuing certainty over a potential redundancy payout. A decision no doubt informed by the scale and generosity of today’s pay rise and bonus award.