year end bonus

Yes, Even Chevy Chase has Lessons for the Workplace

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I’ll never understand how National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation became a holiday classic. First off, to be a classic, it has to be made before I was born, which I realize eliminates a lot of would-be classics. Second, it has Chevy Chase.

I saw this movie in the theater back in 1989. In those days, my friend Ray and I went to see a lot of movies during our Christmas and Spring Breaks (no Fort Lauderdale for me. I was too busy working). I remember coming out of it and saying to each other, that’s the last time we pay the full price for anything starring Chevy Chase. The man who became famous for falling down at the start of every Saturday Night Live in its first season was also the first to leave prematurely when the glitter, glamor and money of Hollywood beckoned. He made a lot of movies in the beginning, and except a couple of good films (Caddyshack and Foul Play spring to mind) most of them were duds.

Perhaps the fact that I saw the movie in the theater is the problem. Most people I know who laud the humor of the movie experienced it on some secondary cable channel one late December night when there was nothing else on TV. Their expectations were much lower than mine. When pressed, they’ll say, oh, I like it, but I’d never pay full price in a movie theater to see it. It’s not that good.

To those few who would have plucked down the price of a ticket, not to mention the cost of overpriced popcorn and soda, all I have to say is that everyone’s entitled to their opinion, even if it is wrong and misguided. I found Christmas Vacation to be dull and predictable. The only true laughs came from Randy Quaid who played cousin-in-law Eddie.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of experiencing the movie, the plot centers around Chevy Chase as the hapless Clark Griswold, determined to have a good old-fashioned Christmas when his extended family comes to town. The comedy (I use the term loosely) includes antics like going out to cut down a Christmas tree then finding they have no saw and stringing the outside of the house with thousands of lights that won’t work. To add some tension, there is also a somewhat real life crises happening. Clark hasn’t received his annual bonus yet, and he needs it to pay for the down payment he put on a new pool.

Since John Hughes wrote this movie, it has to come with a message. All his movies have messages, usually warped and twisted ones (outer beauty is what matters, date rape is okay, etc.) This time, the message is about the importance of family and the joy of Christmas. Of course, being in HR, that’s not the message I got out of it.

And no, the message is not that Dickie’s are inappropriate work attire:

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The message is – NEVER COUNT ON YOUR BONUS.

Let’s not dwell on the poor parenting that makes Clark think a pool is what he should spend his bonus on instead of, let’s say, his kids’ college education. Instead, let’s focus on his expectation of a bonus in the first place. He believes he is getting a bonus, not because anyone told him he would, but because he had always gotten one in the past. Then he goes and spends it before he even knows he’s going to receive it. We’re supposed to fret along with Clark about this, when really, all I could think is that he’s an idiot.

We have to keep in mind, however, that Clark’s no different from most of us. Hell, I’ve even made the mistake of counting on a bonus, even if I didn’t spend it before it was in the bank. Now, I’m not talking about earned commissions, money someone receives based on sales using a prescribed formula. I’m talking about true bonuses. Money the company awards based on criteria no one can usually understand, but usually entails executives in a closed room with a dart board.

Companies will flat-out tell you bonuses are not guaranteed. They’ll have it scroll across the bottom of your computer screen, make it part of their logo, tattoo it on their CEO’s forehead. But no matter what, a certain large portion of you will consider it a regularly scheduled part of your income. You’ll work it into your household budgets, pile money onto your credit cards with the expectation that the bonus can be used to repay it. When you receive it, you view it as an entitlement. When you don’t, you complain that something has been taken away. It’s easy to forget that a bonus is just that, an extra.

My organization is generous with its incentives and bonuses. When it does well, it shares its success across the board. But if it doesn’t do well, everyone is out of luck. Back during the Great Recession, no bonuses or incentives were paid for about two years. While no one liked it, it did serve an important function. It reminded everyone that these bonuses weren’t guarantees.

It’s been over six years since that happened. Unfortunately, the lesson learned has been forgotten by some (and never learned by people who were hired later). Bonuses will be good this year. I’m happy for everyone. They worked hard. They deserve it. I just hope they remember that the bonus they get this year is no promise that they’ll get one next year.

If you are getting a bonus, I hope you remember this, too.

Happy Holidays!