Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sometimes a bonus isn't a good deal

At a place I worked at many, many years ago they gave a $500 safety bonus if you didn't get hurt or bust something up for the year.

Or supposedly.

Truth is it had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with having just one more thing to hold over a guy's head and threaten to take away from him.

The workplace was somewhat adversarial in that some members of middle management were complete jerks that had a chip on their shoulder towards the guys in the trenches.

They were constantly looking for little reasons to take it away from you and sometimes they would threaten to take the bonus away from an entire crew.

The bonus was nothing but a spiteful tool and when you got down to it, was not worth the time and effort to earn it, or at least I thought so.

You had to fill out a form at the beginning o the year to be eligible and one year I simply threw my form in the trash. Later it came to the attention that I hadn't filled out the form and was handed another one which I instantly balled up and threw away.

"I don't want the $500," I said. "It's not worth the trouble."

The port captain was stunned. "You can't use an extra $500?" he stuttered.

"Nope. It'll put me in another tax bracket," I said. "I can't afford to take it."

He didn't know what to say and eventually someone else started pushing me to sign up and I refused, citing the tax bracket fib I had told the other guy. He persisted and I threatened to take the issue to the union. They relented.

(I always wonder how the union would have handled someone that didn't want $500 from the company)

Some time several months later one of the adversarial middle management types came looking to start something with anyone and I happened to be handy. He was upset because I was holding a paint brush in the wrong hand or something meaningless and told me that if I didn't shape up I'd lose my bonus.

I shot back that I wasn't getting one to begin with because I hadn't signed up for it. They could keep the money because it wasn't worth the trouble.

He went into shock and wandered off stunned.

My shipmates asked me what that was all about and I explained to them that I had refused to sign up for the bonus because I was tired of having it thrown in my face all the time.

Some of them thought I was crazy that I would refuse $500. Others thought I was pretty sly. They figured out that I had an interesting plan. I told them about if a lot of people refused to sign up for the bonus they would likely stop throwing threats to take it away from us every five minutes.  

At the end of the year they paid me the $500 anyway. I took the check to payroll and explained I was ineligible as I had not filled out the paperwork and the payroll lady simply told me to take it. I refused and put the check on her desk and walked off.

Five minutes later my port captain was begging me to take the check and I simply tossed it in the wastebasket and walked off. He fished it out and then both my port captain and my port engineer chased me down pleaded with me to take the money.

I told them I would take the check and cash it only after I had checked with my accountant. Of course I took it and laughed all the way to the bank.

A couple of weeks later the forms came out again and I tossed mine as I had done the year before. This year I was not alone. Over 20% of them were not filled out and the office kept resending them and demanding they get filled out or you would not get your bonus.

On a couple of tugs the forms were tossed out by the entire crew. Port captains that chased people down were told by crew members that their tax people told them not to accept the bonus.

On one tug the port captains boarded and demanded they fill out the forms they were met by steadfast refusal to sign up for the bonus program. Finally they gave up and left.

During the year they stopped threatening to take the bonus away from people as a threat and at the end of the year everyone got one if they had signed up or not. I quietly took mine but several guys (cleverly) complained bitterly about having $500 forced upon them.

A couple of weeks later the forms came out again and everyone quietly filled them out and turned them in, but this was different because management started using the bonus as a positive tool instead of a negative one and things went along a lot smoother with less resentment.

Some of the lessons learned are that when someone gives you something he can threaten to take it away from you.

When you refuse to accept something from someone he has nothing he can take away from you and he loses that power over you.

The loss of $500 wasn't worth being threatened constantly over when you looked at the big picture.

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