America's worst office Christmas parties, gifts, and bonuses.

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 21 2006 4:41 PM

The Corporate Scrooge Contest Results

America's worst office Christmas parties, gifts, and bonuses.

Our appeal for corporate Scrooges—tales of office parties canceled, miserly bonuses, and pathetic gifts—generated a generous response. Nearly 200 Slatereaders wrote in, providing enough fodder for several episodes of The Office. We heard from employees of car dealerships, doctors, and small law firms, but also from blue workers at blue chips, including Burberry, Dow Jones, Goldman Sachs, Disney, Wells Fargo, and Wal-Mart.

The complaints fell into several broad categories:

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1. The thought doesn't count. Several people described receiving bonuses and gift card items of defined monetary value that struck them as insultingly small. Two Wal-Mart employees reported that they received a holiday gift that consisted of a coupon good for 20 percent off a single item at the world's biggest retailer. One newspaper owned by McClatchy offered employees a $15 gift card to Dillard's department store, where $15 won't go much further than a pair of socks. Several people wrote of noticing bonuses of $25—pretax—tacked on to their year-end paychecks. One informant said that Cintas Corp., a uniform maker, offered employees a $25 Wal-Mart holiday gift card, but that the card couldn't be used to buy alcohol or cigarettes.

The winner in this category: A reader reported that his wife, a dental assistant, received a $30 certificate to the fancy clothing store owned by the dentist's wife, in which no item for sale was close to that price.

2. Useless, cheap merchandise. Universities seem to be particular offenders in this regard. The wife of an Indiana University employee recalls with disgust "a food basket filled with little paper cartons of dehydrated apple soup." Every year Duke University gives a Duke Holiday "Suncatcher," of a different campus building.And a former employee of Canadian printer Quebecor World recalls with chagrin receiving a "slightly damaged ornament" for Christmas. Le bah humbug!

The winner:A former employee of the firm that produces the  Great Dickens Christmas Fair in San Francisco reports that the company departed from its tradition of giving modest cash bonuses and instead gave out white painters' caps with the words "Bah Humbug" stenciled in red.

3. Bait and switch. In which companies promise one thing and give another, or pair a meager carrot at holiday time with a large stick.

"When the CEO called me into his office to tell me about the Christmas bonus, I was genuinely surprised with the generosity," writes an employee of a thriving community bank in Florida. "When the deposit came into my account, it was 20 percent less than what he promised." Our Midwest correspondent reports that management of a food distributor in a small town in Iowa promised they would use funds raised from workers recycling soda cans to fund a catered holiday meal with door prizes at a local community center. But as the holidays approached, they shifted it to a "pot luck meal in the breakroom on a weekend." After complaints, management relented and offered a "snacks and punch reception."

The winner: A contract consultant sends word that the company to which he is currently assigned recently sent out an e-mail to some 2,000-odd consultants. The company would give away two $100 gift cards—to two of the brave souls who would commit to work 80 hours between Dec. 18 and Dec. 31. As our correspondent noted: "Hey, if you work Christmas, we'll put you in a pool of 2,000 other folks to maybe win a hundred bucks."

4. Devolution. Veterans of companies note with dismay the progressive scaling down of Christmas spirit. At a large marketing and printing firm, an employee recalls that Christmas 2005 brought a party on a boat. This year: a "casual snack" after lunch. An employee at the outsourcing firm Convergys recalls the following downshifting:

2004: $15 Target gift card
2005: $10 Publix gift card
2006: an umbrella with the company's logo

In 2004 and 2005, employees of one giant insurance firm received a $500 after-tax bonus on the last paycheck of the year. This year, however, the formula has been changed to a discretionary performance-based bonus. "Conventional wisdom estimates that the employees who actually receive one will net about $100 in March," Moneybox's insurance correspondent writes.

The winner:An employee of a very large law firm in Chicago reports that the firm in 2005 had a positively bacchanalian blow-out. It sprawled over four floors, "including one floor decorated to look like a forest glen in medieval England, complete with suits of armor and fake-fire torches with buffet tables stacked with serrano ham, sausage, smoked venison, cheeses, etc. And, naturally, a chocolate fountain." Mmmmm. Chocolate fountain. This year, our legal source writes: "no decoration, barely edible food, and worst of all, the party was completely dry." Completely dry? Why, a corporate party without alcohol is like, well, it's like a corporate party without alcohol.

There's more. In a news release, United Steelworkers Union Local 12-192 reports that Riverside Cement Company, a California-based unit of TXI, is using the Christmas party as a cudgel in negotiations, "In previous years, union hourly workers and their families have been welcome at the company's holiday gathering, where common laborers could sip eggnog with corporate managers in the spirit of fellowship," the release states. "But this year's party at the Hilton [in Victorville, Ca.] is for non-union, salaried employees only."

The lamest party ever? There are surely many contenders. But this one ranks high on my list. A former employee of Manhattan's legendary Strand Bookstore writes that the store treats its staffers to a holiday party, before the 18 miles of shelves are open to the public, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. "Few employees actually attend," the ex-Strander writes, "given that to do so would have them arriving at their workplace a full hour early to eat bagels in dismal surroundings with their coworkers."

Perhaps the most Dickensian example comes from Scrooge's homeland. One writer nominated his former employer, David Bury Ltd in the Dickensian-sounding town of Grimsby. "During my time with the company as a consumer electronic service engineer, the annual Christmas bonus given to all employees was a bag of potatoes," he writes. Apparently a relative of the boss owned a potato farm.

God bless us, every one.

Daniel Gross is a longtime Slate contributor. His most recent book is Better, Stronger, Faster. Follow him on Twitter.

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