Confessions of a benefits manager: Calculated silence

With morale at an all-time low, it has been decided that end-of-year bonuses should be paid after all, although Candid could not possibly comment on the mysterious way these will be totted up

February might seem like an odd month to be paying bonuses and so it is. We normally pay in December, but with all the credit crunch excitement, the Higher Beings were not sure what to do. Decision-making is not their strong point. First of all, they said we should still pay bonuses in December but not until after the finance boys had closed the books on the 27th. That way, we would have an unusually good cash balance for quarter end. Sneaky, eh? However, it then turned out that we did not have enough cash to pay bonuses anyway. Yikes. Something to do with some big bank in the US being in trouble. It seems our revolving credit facility is stuck or something. I didn’t really understand it, but the upshot was: no Christmas bonus for us. You can imagine how popular I was when I had to communicate that one. Still, I was able to say that we would still each get a bottle of wine from the company. Hurrah.

Now, seeing all those Christmas credit card bills plopping through the letterbox, the Higher Beings have decided we need to pay ourselves a bonus after all. Morale is at an all-time low, they say, and if we do not do something fast, our best people will leave. What best people exactly, I wonder? In any event, the Super Beings in the US have agreed we can go ahead and spend 50% of the original budget to keep everyone motivated through these difficult times.

You would think that would be an easy thing to implement; just take the original calculations and cut them in half, but life is never that simple. Given the reduced budget, the Higher Beings want to make sure we spend the money ‘wisely’ and therefore they want to tinker about with the individual calculations. I can see where this is going: 100% payout for Higher Beings, 0% for everyone else.

I am not far off in my assessment. The Higher Beings want a sheet showing the new calculation for their teams, and they will fill in an adjustment column for a few key players. The trouble is: in order to stick to the approved budget, if they want to give anything extra to someone, they have to take it away from someone else.

The Higher Beings giveth and they taketh away. My heart sinks. I know who will be left to explain all these random adjustments to employees. And how exactly do you explain to someone that their bonus has been reduced by their boss’s boss so that he could give a bit more to one of the idiots running another department? Still, after the Higher Beings have had their little huddle, the list comes back and I analyse the names adjusted. There is an obvious pattern: the amount of positive adjustment is directly proportional to how nasty the manager is. The way to climb to the top around here is on the backs of your employees. Co-operation is not rewarded; bullying is. Big Bad Boss is on the list for a start. Call him a key player? Really, the whole thing is just a joke.

Looking at the list of negative adjustments is even more interesting. Did that senior IT manager get dinged because she is off on maternity leave? No one will admit it, but, equally, Big Bad Boss will not meet my eyes when I ask.

Worse, there are five people on this same list who were recently made redundant. I understand we hardly need to keep them motivated now they have gone, but if they were on the list in the first place, it means we had some legal obligation to pay the bonus as normal. Did Big Bad Boss point that out to the Higher Beings when they were making their decisions? Hardly. I suggest he points it out now, because we will only run into legal problems later on.

One of the people on the list is an ex-HR director who was smart enough to have the bonus specifically written into his compromise agreement. However, Big Bad Boss refuses to make any changes. He thinks that this is a creative way to squeeze out a few extra dollars in the budget. Yes, the employees who left will shout when they get no bonus, and if they threaten legal action, we will pay them anyway. However, by then the subject of bonus budgets will be closed, so the money will have to come from somewhere else. I have to admit I can see his logic. Win, win.

I wonder if I am becoming as cynical as the rest of them. Certainly, you do not see me rushing into the Higher Beings to tell them they are making a mistake. I may be disillusioned, but I am not stupid.

Later on, after yet another Higher Being-huddle, Big Bad Boss calls me into his office. What ridiculous suggestions are they making now? Are we going to zero out the bonus of any employees over 55 years of age and then hope they do not make a discrimination claim? How about making a couple more people redundant so we can use their bonus budget to give everyone in the management team a bit more? The darker it gets, the darker it gets.

Actually, I have got it all wrong. Big Bad Boss is just congratulating me on my own bonus. He hands me a letter. He has proposed, and had approved, a special adjustment for me too. You know what this is: hush money. I will take it.

  • Next time…Candid gets legal advice.