A storied annual ritual. Arrive at work via public transport. Depart driving a shiny new red sports car.
Once, investment bankers possessing the temperament of spoiled toddlers, would don a confident mask as they swaggered the length of the trading floor, from their desks to their manager’s office.
Back in the days when managers had offices. Come to think of it, back when employees had desks.
Mentally, they walked on a knife-edge.
One side held rainbows and unicorns. Hopes and dreams abound.
On the other there be dragons. Disaster. Disappointment. Ultimate doom.
Upon entering the manager’s office, there would be a handshake and a brief conversation. Meaningless small talk neither party cared about.
Then down to business. An envelope slid across the table. Containing the number.
In the blink of an eye, the employee’s mind absorbs a figure that says everything about how the employer perceives their contribution to the organisation and their future within it. Actions, not words.
Expectations crash into reality.
Yielding instinctive reactions of celebration or dismay.
Triggered not by the number itself, but by the employee’s preconceived notion of self-worth. The figure doesn’t matter, feelings are determined by whether they got what they thought they deserved.
Emotions that the employee carefully suppresses. Showing no weakness. Poker face on display.
Surprise would tell the boss that the employee does not realise the true value of their contribution.
Too happy, and the employee undervalues their worth. A useful insight the next time remuneration is discussed. Less likely to rock the boat. Grateful for what they are given. Readily exploitable.
Not happy enough, and the staff member has an inflated sense of self. Those with confidence and marketable skills will seek alternative employment, somewhere they will feel more appreciated.
Most will respond with a carefully feigned response, like the also-rans at an awards ceremony.
But what of the true message the employee divines in that moment?
After all, bonuses are forward-looking retention tools. The past is the past, nothing can change it. Time already spent. Effort already expended. No returns. No refunds.
Is the employer attempting to purchase their loyalty for another year?
Or is the employee being encouraged to pursue alternative opportunities elsewhere?
Most likely, the employer simply doesn’t care either way. All but a few employees are just commodity cogs in the vast corporate machine. Infinitely replaceable. Plenty more where they came from.
The bonus meeting concludes with a handshake, followed by a walk back across the trading floor.
The employee’s colleagues masterfully pretend to be busy, while scrutinising body language and demeanour for clues about the outcome. Signs of weakness. Early warnings of trouble ahead.
The victors may grin. Dance. Head out for a liquid lunch and afternoon of debauchery.
The vanquished may stomp off in a huff. Kick the furniture. I once saw one punch their boss in the face.
Win or lose, before long, resumes are embellished and LinkedIn profiles updated.
A chorus of smartphone notification pings resound, as feelers are extended and networks put to work.
For a brief moment, the golden handcuffs are temporarily loosened. The working week becomes fragmented by late arrivals. Long lunches. Early exits. Unexplained absences.
Job hunting season has commenced in earnest.
Thankfully, I long since ceased to sell my soul to the investment banking gods. A lifestyle choice for which I am eternally grateful. However, at this time of the year, I do occasionally wonder how those few former colleagues who remain in the game had faired.
Recently, it was bonus time at my current workplace. The numbers and stories are smaller than in the banking world, but human behaviours are universal.
Many of my colleagues had been on tenterhooks. Dreaming of the holidays they would take. The renovations they would make. Expensive gifts they would shower upon their loved ones, in a futile attempt to apologise for a year’s worth of poor prioritisation decisions that saw those same loved ones constantly play second fiddle to an all-consuming job.
But only if the firm had enjoyed a good year.
Only if the remuneration gods smiled upon them.
Only if the higher-ups still wished to retain their services.
And only after they had lost up to 60% of their bonuses to the vampiric tax authorities.
The human resources department had issued guidance advising employees to consider salary sacrificing any bonus they might receive into their pensions. Worked examples dramatically illustrating the financial impact of this legal tax avoidance, both today and after a decade’s worth of compounding.
Few would heed the call. The seductive siren song of extra cash in the bank proving too strong.
Then the day finally arrived. A little laughter. More than a few tears. Some anger.
By week’s end, just over 10% of the firm’s permanent workforce had submitted their resignations.
Brexit induced migration restrictions yielding a seller’s market for the scarce pool of white-collar skills in the City.
After more than a decade of relatively stagnant wages, those workers confident enough to back themselves were landing promotions and pay rises of up to 50%.
It won’t last. It can’t last. But as the old saying goes, “make hay while the sun shines”.
My bonus meeting with my boss was rescheduled a half dozen times over the course of the week.
Five days after most staff members learned their number, a snatched corridor conversation between meetings was the best we could manage. Blunt as ever, he congratulated me on being appreciated, retained, and asked to continue doing the same work for only 3% less money.
I raised an eyebrow, as far as motivational speakers go, he was somewhat lacking.
“You’ve received a 4% pay rise. Inflation is running at 7%. Therefore you’ll be financially worse off than last year to the tune of 3%. But take heart, while you’re going backwards, it is at a slower rate than most people around here!”
He glanced meaningfully towards a mob of status-craving middle managers emerging from an all-hands town hall meeting. The CEO had just finished a shameless performance of figurative flexing and willy wagging, as he boasted of the firm’s grand results achieved under his highly remunerated stewardship.
A couple of those middle-managers had boasted about their paltry bonuses, but only after hearing several others complain about not receiving any bonus at all.
Then my boss leaned in and whispered that I’d received the maximum possible bonus as set out in my employment contract. Equating to the equivalent of an extra 2.5 months’ pay. Which, apart from stroking my ego a little, would no doubt feel like a meaningless number because I was smart enough to have salary sacrificed it all.
Out of sight. Out of mind. Untouchable, for another decade or more.
I must confess to being pleasantly surprised. Given the “perfectly average” performance appraisal I had received late last year, I had anticipated neither the recurring pay rise nor the one-off bonus.
That evening I shrugged on my coat and headed for home. The weather outside was foul. Cold. Wet. Windy. Predictably, the tubes were on strike, as various unions sought pay rises for their members to offset the rapidly increasing prices of everything.
As I commenced the long walk home along the river, my boss’s comment replayed in my head.
“continue doing the same work for 3% less money”
That certainly cut to the heart of the matter. An inconvenient truth from which there was no escape. Like walking in on your parents having sex, some things once seen cannot be unseen.
Throughout that bonus week, many of the staff on my project teams had complained that their utility bills had increased by 50% while their pay remained constant. A seemingly common lament, given they were a mixture of permanent staff, consultants, and freelancers. There seemed to be a pandemic of financially going backwards underway.
After the pay rise, my cash flow situation was slightly better than theirs. But not materially so.
I thought about what that new reality would look like in practice.
Another year of subjecting myself to endless stress and institutional silliness. Acidic stomach. Broken sleep. Grinding teeth. Inadequate exercise. Night sweats. Rigid shoulders. Tension headaches.
All for a regular pay cheque, albeit a generous one. Any thought of job satisfaction or professional fulfilment had long since been abandoned. Outgrown and cast aside, like naïve beliefs in fairy tale endings, natural justice, or meritocracy.
A year spent receiving hospital pass assignments, like being asked to deliver something in two months with two part-time resources, that at many organisations a dedicated team would take several years and several million dollars to accomplish.
While concurrently spending another year driving an inflight multi-year project which had just had its budget slashed. Headcount reduced by 70%, while deluded stakeholders demanded that delivery quality, scope, and timelines all remain unchanged. To which my response had been to misquote the immortal line from The Castle: “tell them they’re dreaming!”
A year spent keeping a half dozen other spinning plates in motion, running ever faster to stop things catching on fire or smashing on the floor.
Throw in the endless recruitment rounds and onboarding of new starters to replace those staff broken by the relentless pace, unrealistic expectations, and inflated egos. Or those staff wise enough to hit eject and further their careers while fattening their coffers elsewhere.
And enduring all of that for reduced purchasing power, which equated to feeling poorer rather than richer. Of falling behind rather than getting ahead.
I must confess it left me questioning some of my life choices.
Desperately needing a holiday. Longing for another summer of semi-retired idleness.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted as I trudged home in the rain. Golden handcuffs be damned.
Tempted also to answer one of the continual stream of headhunter approaches, as they seek players for the endless game of corporate musical chairs being played throughout financial services.
My inner saboteur piped up at that point, observing that after a while all jobs become pretty much the same.
“Same shit, different smell.”
He wasn’t wrong.
While address, décor, and faces may change, human nature is universal.
Yet if I was going to be eating shit anyway, then perhaps doing so for more money made sense. Boldly stepping forward rather than passively drifting backwards.
Not a cure to the underlying problem. But a soothing placebo, temporarily masking the symptoms.
A decision not yet made. Possibly something I am trying to talk myself into. Or out of.
Something to ponder.