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{ in·deed·a·bly }

adverb: to competently express interest, surprise, disbelief, or contempt

Honorarium

Bonus day.

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.

Gratitude.

Humility.

Moderately happy.

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 averageperformance 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.


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18 Comments

  1. Impersonal Finances 5 March 2022

    I would anticipate annual increases come nowhere near keeping up with inflation in the short term. Only if inflation persists will employers be forced to up the ante. It’s been a job seeker’s market since the pandemic, with a large percentage of rage quitters landing comfortably at better paying gigs in short order. We’ll see what the future holds but I don’t expect much generosity at the next annual performance review.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 March 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Impersonal Finances.

      One thing is for certain, inflation matching pay rises won’t be volunteered. They’ll be given grudgingly, if at all, and fought every step of the way. Those who assert themselves (and manage to win) will preserve their lifestyles. Those who are timid, in weak bargaining positions due to limited local opportunities, or possessing skills that are not in demand will struggle.

  2. Fire And Wide 6 March 2022

    Hey Indeedably. Wry smile reading this one – how I don’t miss those days. It all sounded so wearily familiar. I love your posts like these as they always remind me of what I’m not missing ?

    For me, and like you I suspect, one of the best parts about becoming FI was loosening those golden handcuffs. Just knowing I could leave often made enduring the corporate shit easier.

    It’s all perspective, right. Something that becomes frighteningly more obvious every day recently. It’s good to have options, whether you use them or not.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 March 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Michelle.

      Having the option of being able to afford to walk away means I view the shenanigans and silliness somewhat dispassionately. Which at times makes it harder to swallow, because I don’t have to pander to the C-suite egos and or put up with their toddler tantrums.

      Of course there is a down side to freedom, in that the bribes and dangling carrots have no allure, nor do I have any desire to climb the greasy pole. Which makes me a pain the backside to manage, and means I’m not shy about calling bullshit when expectations are unrealistic.

      For the most part my boss just keeps out of my way and lets me get on with doing indeedably things, and I get a pass from doing most of the kool-aid drinking happy clappy corporate kumbaya nonsense.

  3. JBL 6 March 2022

    All too familiar. Once you have seen through it all its impossible to unsee it, but the key thing is knowing why you are still doing it – for me, once career goals had become rather meaningless, and belief in the system non-existant, building up sufficient funds to be able to get out was motivation enough. After that and once interest in the actual work dropped (may be one caused the other), it was difficult to keep going.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 6 March 2022 — Post author

      Thanks JBL. You have articulately condensed the journey there, well said.

      I’m certainly at that point, with a couple of short term financial hurdles to clear before feeling free to choose once more.

    • sparklebee 12 March 2022

      Well said, JBL. I agree totally.
      I don’t miss any of this, if anything, this just makes me realise why I did the right thing and quit.

  4. Bob 6 March 2022

    There was an occasion in 1985 at a North London police station. A constable , who had earlier that day received an unpleasant annual review, was seen exiting the station with a service pistol saying he was off to see the Superintendent at home. I believe he was intercepted in Chingford and sectioned

  5. Pete 6 March 2022

    I’m interested in your view of the merits of being an employee versus consulting. I’ve been an employee all of my career, but with financial independence almost within reach (it’s shimmering like an oasis on the horizon), I’m considering coasting to the finish line as a consultant (either part-time or part of the year). I would be giving up potentially sizeable bonuses to do this. The driver as I see it is more control of my time, but I may be required to work a little longer given expected lower income. Do you have any comments on this question?

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 7 March 2022 — Post author

      Thanks Pete.

      Consulting” is an overloaded term, so for the purposes of this answer I’m going to work on the assumption you mean freelancing rather than trading one permanent job (with the client) for another (with a Big4 style consultancy who subcontract bodies to the client).

      The permie versus freelance question is mostly a lifestyle one these days. In theory, permies have more certainty and structure but less control. In reality, no role is ever more secure than its notice period.

      In theory, permies ask for time off while freelancers tell clients they are unavailable. In reality, if the freelancer is absent too often, the client will perceive them as unreliable and find someone else.

      A permie receives a salary package, including benefits. Base salary + paid holiday + paid sick leave + pension + (possibly) benefits like health and life insurance + (possibly) paid training + (possibly) non-guaranteed non-recurring performance bonuses.

      A freelancer receives a day rate, from which if they desire any of those benefits, they have to pay for them themselves.

      To compare them like for like you would need to factor those things in. Once you put a price to them, you can use free tools like those at Contractor Calculator to compare and contrast.

      Once you understand that, much of the financial attractiveness of freelancing is as you describe, a mirage.

      That said, freelancers can avoid the corporate politics and “go team” nonsense required of many permies. They are just an extra pair of short-term hired hands. Client’s decisions, client’s business, not their problem.

  6. David Andrews 7 March 2022

    The below inflation pay rises and bonus payments have summed up an overriding reason why half of my team quit in the past 3 months.

    You can tolerate a certain amount of employment frustrations if you are competitively compensated but if that doesn’t happen, your employees are going to look elsewhere.

    I’m in the situation that @JBL outlined in their post. I currently tolerate things because I’m still allowed to work from home and my compensation is in line with the general market.

    The fact I’ve been paid less year upon year for the last 3 years is painful though, but offset by “tax optimisation” via salary sacrifice and employer NI saving inputs.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 8 March 2022 — Post author

      You tell a familiar tale there, David.

      My workplace played the “remote working is a privilege, not a right” card this week, to be used by exception only. After spending the last two years proving remote working worked well, with record profits and rapid growth, the lonely old dinosaurs have gained supremacy once more.

      • David Andrews 8 March 2022

        Thanks for your response. I’m fortunate that my local office is just a 7 mile cycle ride away and we haven’t received any mandatory recall to the office notifications .. yet.

        I’ve told my manager I need to update my spreadsheet and calculate the cost of attending the office versus the cost of working from home and I’ll let him know. He thought I was joking…… I wasn’t.

  7. weenie 9 March 2022

    Congrats on the bonus and pay rise.

    We were informed that we were getting our bonuses as the company had achieved all of its 2021 targets so that was good news.

    In the same breath however, we were told that we were not guaranteed any (performance related) pay rises this year so with inflation running at 7%, that could be a 7% pay cut for me (or a bit less, if I do manage to secure a pay rise).

    Would I leave if I didn’t get a pay rise? Unlikely, as I quite like my job and the people I work with and I’ve always tended to value those over a bigger salary.

    • {in·deed·a·bly} 9 March 2022 — Post author

      Thanks weenie, that’s very kind.

      Good luck with obtaining that payrise.

      It is certainly a frothy job market at the moment. Well paid staff members on my teams are jumping ship and landing £50,000 increases in pay for doing essentially the same role next door. On a personal level I’m pleased for them, but I suspect it heralds a looming round of nearshoring, as employers apply all those hard-won pandemic remote working lessons learned to obtain staffing cost arbitrage abroad.

      • sparklebee 12 March 2022

        Mmm…nearshoring….
        I was out for a walk the other day and could overhear a guy in front of me on his phone discussing the termination of his whole team as the operation was being moved overseas as a remote working practice. He sounded stressed and frustrated as he had to terminate the employment of each member of his team. He was also just waiting for the call from his manager to do the same to him.

        • {in·deed·a·bly} 12 March 2022 — Post author

          Thanks sparklebee.

          That’s one of the worst parts of being a manager. Decisions get made well above our pay grade, yet giving the bad news gets delegated to us. At that point we face a choice, take a futile principled stand out of team loyalty, or opt for self-preservation and hopefully live to fight another day. The law of the jungle usually wins out: devil take the hindmost.

          I have some sympathy for the guy you overheard though. I now have project teams in Eastern Europe and Spain, when less than a year ago all my teams were notionally based in the City but working remotely. Remote work can be done anywhere, and the C-suite quickly figured out Barcelona or Bratislava based workers are much cheaper than those in Birmingham or Brighton. None of those jobs will be returning onshore anytime soon.

What say you?

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