The Bonus

February 12, 2009

One bonus of the recession, and I don’t think there’ll be another one along in a second, is that it has outed The Bonus (you never hear of The Perq or Perk any more, but I expect that’s because it is tuppeny-hapenny beside The Bonus).

I did once have a job that included a bonus. It wasn’t called that, of course: that would have been too simple. And I don’t suppose it is called that in the Royal Bank of Scotland (in which I have some money, in one of its many subsidiaries, I think – is it me or has the plethora of initials – HSBC, HSBOS, RBS – started to get you confused as well?). It will be called an enhancement scheme or something to do with performance, or something like that. ‘Bonus’ is jargon and journalese, and for one of the very first times, it’s handy to have the newspaper slang. Bonus schemes started to creep into the education sector in the eighties, when Kinnock lost the election, and Kenneth Baker made great sections of the education sector ‘independent’, at which point a variety of ‘business’ types were parachuted into high office. Some were competent; some weren’t. Nothing new there. But the market culture came with them, and that meant that anyone in ‘management’ was – well, as Jane Austen would have put it, it was an universal truth that a middle manager in pursuit of job security must be provided with a bonus.

It wasn’t an option. I was on a bonus scheme, or I was out. To get a bonus (I think it was about 7% of my pay), I had to meet targets. To meet targets, I had to have an action plan. To have an action plan, I had to have a strategy. To have a strategy I had to… but here my memory grows dim, and has started to repress some of the jargon.

But how was the size of my bonus to be measured? This was simple. Since I was producing data faster than I could keep up with, and since more data was required, and since there was not time in the week to produce that data, let alone read or analyse it, or use it, I was obviously to be paid according to… a thirty-minute interview, undertaken by those on a higher rung, one of whose targets was to conduct interviews with people like me. So really I wasn’t being measured, so much as providing measurements. The interviews were very kindly. The interviewers complimented me on my data (which they had not had time to read, being too busy trying to find time to read their own data), and asked after my welfare, enquired (again) why I did not wear a suit (this was known as ‘presentation’) and then gave me a sub-percentage of the 7% (or whatever it was). On one occasion, the amount deducted (or not paid), presumably for not wearing a suit, was the price of a suit.

All this depressed me, quite chronically. The culture made you feel, no matter how hard you tried, inadequate. In one year during which I was starting to go under, they trumped me by giving me a 100% bonus, and I sank into a three-month depression – since the process was so obviously meaningless.

Still, I don’t think I was normal. The bonus system had and has a habit of embedding in the brains of those who are striving for the extra a sense that the bonus is an inalienable right, and, as I rememvber it, there was a clause in the bonus scheme which guaranteed 60% of the said bonus, come hell, high water, or both. In other words, it wasn’t a bonus.

And this is what has happened in the boardrooms across the country. The bonus is not a bonus. The bonus is an expectation. It is actually what its recipients in any other situation would call pay. As time goes by, this hidden pay becomes a self-con. The bankers who are seeking obscene rewards for their complete incompetence (although I am sure they wear suits) are now so immunised against the real world that they do not understand that a bonus is, strictly speaking, an extra. They have been kidded, and they continue to kid themselves.

And this is why we have not only a bone but a bonus to pick with them. They are living in a fantasy which has been going on for so long that they no longer realise how intently they are dreaming.

Or perhaps they’re just greedy bastards, of course.