The executive bonus plan: All for us, none for you

Employees at one company are doubly disrespected when they discover the fate of their holiday bonuses

Businessman holding holiday gift box 187371991
Credit: Thinkstock

Workplace fairness? A woeful rarity. Examples abound, from discriminatory hiring based on age or dress to being passed over for a promotion due to petty details. As employees, we know the deck is stacked against us, but good luck preparing for the grand, tone-deaf display of misplaced values to remind you of your place in the corporate hierarchy.

I was employed at the company’s corporate headquarters along with about 40 others, where we managed the remote sites serving a workforce of more than 400. The four company owners also had offices at the headquarters site. They clearly considered themselves better than us employees and offered reminders from time to time. For the most part, we ignored it and went on with our jobs.

Having worked for the company for only a few years, I wasn't burdened by a history with upper management, unlike other colleagues, a few of whom had been with the firm for more than 20 years. I heard rumblings about the owners' disregard, but not many details, as criticism of the owners was taboo.

Bah, humbug!

Then the holiday season came around.

It was my third year at the company, and the prior two years, we office workers had received a modest bonus check on the last workday before Christmas. As the time drew near, the office buzzed with expectations of sharing in the largesse. Our office handled the AR/AP for all branches of the organization, and according to scuttlebutt in the office, we should once again receive additional remuneration.

But late in November, talk started to circulate -- the owners were complaining the year had not met their expectations. As the rumors persisted, the senior employees advised the newer hires to not plan on any bonuses. They said they'd seen it before, and it was a portent of a year without additional pay.

Sure enough, the following week we received a letter that the checks would not be coming that year, but we'd still have the employee Christmas luncheon in the conference room. Based on how we thought the year had gone, it didn’t make sense. But that was that.

The last working day before Christmas arrived, and the hours ticked by until it was time for the meal. The luncheon was always a low-key event: The owners provided a fairly well-stocked variety of cold cuts, salads, and desserts. No employee spouses were permitted to attend, but the wives and children of the owners always came by.

We gathered in the kitchenette and loaded up our plates. The bosses and their families took over the conference room, accompanied by a few workers, while most retired to their cubicles or the main reception area to eat.

The feeling was pretty gloomy, but I reminded myself it wasn't the end of the world -- I had seen worse at other places.

Merry Christmas -- to some

I was ready to enjoy a bite from my celebratory sandwich when I heard a murmuring from the desk area that looked out onto the parking lot. Standing up and peering across the cubes, I could see a large tractor trailer car carrier pulling into the lot with four brand-new Mercedes sedans topped with big bows -- exactly like in a commercial. Then a bustle of activity drew my attention toward the conference room.

It all became quite clear. The four owners, along with their wives and children, emerged from the conference room and squealed with joy. Foolish me! The vehicles were Christmas gifts to the wives.

Needless to say, there was no standing ovation from the masses. Like the other employees, I quietly sat down in my cubicle and finished my lunch before returning to work.

What did I learn? First, owners have a right to spend their money any way they wish. Second, one should always look at a bonus as a gift, not a given. Finally, money can buy anything -- except class.

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