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    I took a job once where there was a performance bonus that went up to something like 30% of my base salary (tens of thousands of dollars in addition to the money I was making there).

    The actual performance rubric (had I paid closer attention to it) for upper levels required basically being a luminary in the field–and the sort of work we were doing, at the size of team and problem domain we had, frankly would never provide the opportunity. So, right out of the gate the game was rigged and I was too blinded by my own greed to recognize it.

    Next, the bonus was judged by a rubric where we did a self-review, and then our manger (in my case, the CTO) did their own review, and then we would truthseek to some reasonable amount. Now, if you have half a brain you see the obvious strategy on my side is to give myself full marks regardless of how I actually felt about it–because they’re never going to give you more than you give yourself. So, it’s just this toxic thing.

    Wouldn’t you know it, when my first year and bonus came around, the CTO with great sadness–apparently, he had warned the young CEO specifically against this sort of nonsense–explained that I only qualified for something like 8K of the large bonus.

    This was compounded by:

    • Some deal where I could take the bonus in cash, or if I took it in options I could get twice as much! Being a doofus, I figured I’d go for the company scrip.
    • Upon receiving my company scrip, I discovered that their calculation of options and my calculation differed–you can either divide the scrip value by the option strike price (so, 1K of scrip for 1USD strike means 1000 options) or by the stock price (so, 1K of scrip converted into 2USD/share gets 500 options). Obviously, I liked the former calculation because it meant more options/shares–the CEO, being a shrewd businessperson preferred the latter. I was basically given the option to take their calculation (which was a haircut of something like 1/2-2/3 of the value i could’ve gotten) or pound sand. With frustration, I took their offer.
    • Said CEO took ages and ages to finalize my purchase, which was just annoying as hell. The CFO finally stepped in and did the needful, and during this conversation I discovered that the company valuation had actually dropped the share price to something like the former strike price.

    The second year I was there–again, in spite of shipping major features and rewrites and sturm und drang…and being the only surviving engineer of the senior cadre that had been hired into that arrangement (oh yes, everyone hired after me had no bonus structure)–I was informed by the CTO I did not qualify for any bonus whatsoever. I was sacked a month or so later, one day right after an all-hands meeting praising my work.

    Anyways, point is: if the bonus looks too good to be true, it probably is. There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap.

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      Next, the bonus was judged by a rubric where we did a self-review, and then our manger (in my case, the CTO) did their own review, and then we would truthseek to some reasonable amount. Now, if you have half a brain you see the obvious strategy on my side is to give myself full marks regardless of how I actually felt about it–because they’re never going to give you more than you give yourself. So, it’s just this toxic thing.

      These self-review things are incredibly frustrating :-D.

      A while back, I ended up in a big $megacorp project that was pretty much in its dying phase (the team size and overly-optimistic predictions didn’t quite give it away but the day-to-day activity did). And, this being $megacorp and all, of course it had a pretty bureaucratic performance review process, which included a self-review phase.

      This self-review phase, being meant for “mere employees”, not managers, didn’t really leave much margin for actually useful reviewing. There were 10-15 things (teamwork, domain expertise, whatever) that you had to rate yourself for, with ratings between “needs improvement” and “excels at”. In order to save face about this being useful somehow, you were also expected to come up with some sort of yearly development plan, so that you could improve the things that “need improvement” and further build upon things that you excelled at and so on.

      Trouble was, the team development strategy in that department could essentially be summarised as “nope”. We didn’t even have access to hardware reference manuals for some of the ASICs in our hardware because the company didn’t want to pay for the required support level. The team was also awkwardly understaffed. So anything that involved the company paying for anything, or getting even basic guarantees about what you would work on for more than 2-3 weeks in advance so that you could learn something on the job, was just not going to happen.

      So if you did the self-review in good faith, you quickly sabotaged your chance at a bonus. If you genuinely thought you sucked at X and had to improve, every avenue for you to do that was closed.

      So those of us who ended up getting bonuses did the only reasonable thing: we filed it backwards.

      We said we “need improvement” at the things that we knew we had to do anyway. For example, I knew I was going to hold most of the interviews for our team because I was the friendliest person on the team, and I’d worked in some other fields, too, so it was easier for me to strike up a conversation. So despite being pretty good at this, I made sure my review form said I sucked at it and therefore had to either attend trainings (that never happened – company wouldn’t pay for it) or just do more of it and learn on the job. When the yearly evaluation come, I could always say I worked super hard to improve myself, and had an year’s worth of new colleagues to back me up and say the interviews were pretty good.

      And, of course, we said we were great at the things we knew we had no way of improving. My review form always said I was a domain expert (and my direct manager agreed wholeheartedly!) even though I absolutely sucked at what we actually did. If I’d actually admitted to sucking at it on the form, my self-development plan would’ve been a dead end: training was out of the question, projects were always behind so assigning the guy without domain expertise to do the hard things was also out of the question, and everyone was not only busy putting out fires but also missing hardware docs for newer hardware generations – just like I did – so mentoring wasn’t gonna happen, either. Then – no matter how well I’d done under the circumstances – someone would be sure to point out that I’d done nothing to improve since our last evaluation. But since I was already at my best, there was no need to improve things, which just so happened to be very well aligned with the company’s goals, because the higher-ups hadn’t approved anything related to professional development in almost a decade.

      So basically I got a bonus for keeping quiet about how much my skills were rotting.

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        It’s not just a big-company thing, either. I’ve seen the exact same problem over the years at multiple small companies, and as someone who tends to try to write self-reviews in good faith, it is quite demoralizing to look back and realize that at no point did the company do anything about a single one of the things I said I wanted to improve. I come away thinking, why are you wasting my time on this useless crap? Just don’t ask if the answer doesn’t matter.

        But it’s also a “careful what you wish for” situation. In some ways, the company ignoring my “needs improvement” areas is the desirable outcome, because the other outcome that I’ve had happen to me a couple times is that I say I want to improve X and the company signs me up for a mandatory training course on X that they chose with no input from me and that turns out to be of no actual use.

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          Oh, of course – training is just the thing that most easily gets thrown around, but in that particular case, it was also the only way to acquire some, uh, particular knowledge (tl;dr some big companies, including the one who developed some of the stuff we were using, does not really publish documentation – it gives the people who attend their trainings access to said documentation, and the documentation is good enough to generally write code by, but not that good that you don’t need a beefy support package).

          Except for such super-justified cases I really try to avoid trainings and workshops. I’ve been to dozens and I can think of only one or two that were actually useful – and even those were, IMHO, terribly inefficient.

          The option I usually try to sell first is “buy me these two books and give me two weeks’ leave”. I’ve found that to be immensely more useful than any training I’ve ever attended, and it’s usually cheaper, too, so it’s not that tough to sell. On the other hand, it doesn’t work for everything. E.g. one of the two useful trainings I attended was Wayland-related, nearly five years ago, and that’s because there was (and still isn’t) any useful documentation there, it’s all word of mouth.

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      In 1996, I was working for Digital Equipment Corporation, at the time the second largest computer company in the world. Today most people have never heard of it.

      That makes me so sad.

      It’s like the time I went to a punk festival where NOFX was set to play and the younger people in the audience didn’t know who they were. :(

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        Almost a decade ago I was lucky enough to see Stone Temple Pilots - way after their prime - at a festival in Sacramento. I was telling some people I met at the festival that I had bought the day pass just see STP and that I was glad I could see them live, as they didn’t do a lot of tours in South America. They were like ‘who’s that again?’.

        Turns out that was their last show with Scott Weiland, so I guess I was double lucky. But it did make me feel pretty old.

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        A $2000 bonus barely seems worth even botherng to give out, though maybe I should look up what that wasin 1996 dollars.

        Also, if I’m ever asked why I’m leaving my current job I always just say vague things like “time for something new”. I can’t imagine many interviewers expect a very “real” answer to that kind of question.

        I would not have quit over the small bonus, but over the toxic management environment that produced it.

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          I would love to get to the point—and bring everybody else in society to the point—where a few thousand dollars of free money isn’t worth the paperwork. (And before the monkey’s paw curls, I will add not by increasing the paperwork)

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            What’s the base salary for someone at DEC with a decade of experience in a senior role in 1996? I honestly have no idea if it’s $50K, $100K, $200K, or $500K. If it’s $50K, then an extra $2K is quite nice to have, if it’s $200K then it’s an extra 1% and if a 1% change in income makes a noticeable difference to you with that kind of salary then you probably need to re-evaluate your lifestyle. I don’t know what the cost of living was in Maynard (which Wikipedia tells me is a small suburban town 22 miles from Boston)), but I’d imagine that $25K was a big chunk of a year’s living expenses (if not more than a year) back then, whereas $2K is more in the ‘buy a new expensive toy’ category.

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            I would absolutely have quit over that whole situation. Also, anyone interviewing me would get an honest reason why.

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              A $2000 bonus barely seems worth even botherng to give out, though maybe I should look up what that wasin 1996 dollars.

              Seems to be around 3.5k-ish.

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              Best bonus situation I’ve ever seen, management handed the head of the engineering dept a pile of money for bonuses and said “figure out how to divide this money up among your department based on merit”, then the head of engineering said “everyone here works their ass off” and split it evenly among everyone.

              Think that’s a pretty good example to set.

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                In my experience, people can be divided in two categories:

                1. People who do work.
                2. People who do very little or no work.

                Many smaller companies it’s 100% of the first category, but the larger the company gets the more of category 2 seems to seep in. It’s just easier to hide that you’re a fuckup I suppose.

                Barring a few rare exceptions, I find it very difficult to really rank the merit of people in category 1.

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                  People who do very little or no work.

                  I don’t mind people who do little work. Not everyone has the same background and experience and work speed. I do, however, really have zero patience for people who do a negative amount of work. They slowly drain a company.

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                My college co-op was with DEC in 1994 and 1995. The culture there was miserable around that time. I can only imagine how much worse these shenanigans made things. My first job out of college was with a former division of DEC that had recently been sold to Quantum. Interestingly, that job was one of the best work experiences I’ve had. I think my co-workers were full of relief to be away from DEC.

                Anyway, this story was fun and brought me back. :) I don’t think I ever ran into the author in my travels.

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                  Was Quantum making hard disks or am I thinking of something completely different?

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                    Yeah, I used to have these huge Quantum BigFoot 5.25” drives.

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                      Yep! The division I worked in did the server-end SCSI drives that most people have never heard of (the Atlas line of drives).

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                    It’s odd hearing all these tales of bonuses. As a strayan, I’ve never worked anywhere they were a thing. I work for a US based company now, and they’re definitely still not a thing, for those of us in .au. I don’t really know about the rest of the company, it’s not really my business. What’s it like working in an environment where you don’t really know how much you’re going to be paid, in the end? How much (%) of your bonus is within your control, vs your team or entire company performance? Are you given firm numbers for targets, or is it caged in hand-wavey corporate speak? Is it a pain getting it all at once rather than spread throughout the year in your salary?

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                      I work for a US-based company (though I’m in the UK) and bonuses are a fairly big part of their culture. Everyone has a ‘target’ bonus amount in their contract and if they perform pretty well that’s what they’re likely to get, if they don’t meet expectations they’ll get less (can be 0) if they achieve a lot more then it can go higher. The bonus is a mixture of cash and stock, with the ratio skewed towards cash at more junior levels and stock at more senior levels (where you’re expected to have a higher impact on overall business strategy and therefore on the stock price). Stock vests over a few years, which should incentivise doing things that are good for the long-term health of the company (and disincentivise leaving).

                      The cash portion is paid as a lump sum a couple of months after the end of our financial year and just comes with that month’s salary. The stocks appear in quarterly transactions to your designated broker, with some fraction of it sold before it’s assigned and used to pay any applicable income tax. These are just shares, not options. The company creates more stock each year and assigns some to employees, if you sell them as soon as they vest then it’s exactly the same as getting cash, if you believe that the company’s value will go up then you can hang onto them. The stock awarded to you is based on some dollar amount at a specific point, so by the time it vests and you actually get it, the value may be more. All of this is automatic.

                      As a manager, roughly speaking, you are responsible for setting a slider for each employee with the middle meaning ‘performed as expected’, left of that meaning less than expected, to the right meaning more. There are various other steps higher up for figuring out how that translates into actual numbers for the payment and I don’t really understand how that works. This is supposed to[1] be based on evaluating the person’s individual outcomes versus their opportunities. We have ‘people discussions’ that are explicitly not called calibration because they’re not for calibrating people against each other, but for assessing the kinds of things that we think of as impact. Impact is measured in three categories:

                      • Individual work
                      • Building on the work of others
                      • Others building on your work

                      All three of these are important, though for any given individual one may dominate in any given year. The place of the slider is pretty much under your control (have you achieved the objectives that you agreed with your manager? You should be in the middle. Have you been a net asset on the team beyond your core job, especially doing ‘glue’ activities that make the entire team better? You’ll be somewhere to the right. Have you been an obnoxious muppet and made everyone more stressed and less productive? You’ll probably be a long way to the left), though the size of the bonus pot and the value of the stock is variable and so how that placement translates to real amounts is not in your control. If there’s a big gap between how your manager has set the expectations for your performance and how they reflect your performance in the tool, then they are doing a bad job and that will affect their bonus in the future..

                      In terms of what it’s like not knowing what your final compensation will be: I work for a tech company, so the base salary is enough to live very comfortably on[2], the bonus has no impact on my lifestyle, it’s just a way of keeping score and providing feedback in the only way that a major corporation can guarantee that it’s being honest. The bonus doesn’t really factor into my financial planning, it basically goes straight to savings and investments. They claim that it’s there to motivate us, but if I ever had to work with someone who was doing good work because they expected a bonus, I’d probably try to switch teams: we’re working on stuff because we think it’s exciting and will improve the world, we want big bonuses as a result because that indicates that at least part of our management chain shares our vision.

                      [1] I’ve only seen how this is documented as working and how it works in our group, so I can’t tell how well it works across the entire company. My one data point supports the hypothesis that it works well but a single data point does not convey a very high confidence.

                      [2] If you are in my management chain and are reading this, I meant to say, am very poorly paid and deserve a massive raise.

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                        If a bonus was within your control, it wouldn’t be a bonus ;)

                        I expect stock vesting top-ups are more common in public firms than cash bonuses. At my job-before-last we were all paid fine but not great but every year the numbers worked out that we could afford to bonus people amounts that were 1/7th of annual salary or more. But that was a peculiariry of the economics of that business.

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                          I did work for a US company (fellow strayan) and got given stock options as part of signing on a usual 1 year cliff/4 year vest schedule; later bonuses were also in the form of stock options. It all seemed like monopoly money as a privately held company until we got bought by a public one. There’s no reason why your being non-US should particularly preclude you from getting stock bonuses; maybe they’re just not a thing there at all.

                          There was certainly no clarity around when or why they’d get waved around, but that was the company in a nutshell.

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                          Bonuses, compensations, raises often get really odd. Having had the luxury of being able to mess a bit with them not depending so much on steady income yet it feels like there’s always factors involved that cause wrong incentives.

                          There were bonuses for…

                          …“pushing hard on a project” when the only reason for staying longer was waiting for time to pass cause the work place was closer to a bar one would go to. Or any other reason of staying physically at the office longer than usually.

                          … being the most vocal about personal live hardships.

                          … being the most vocal about effort being put into a project.

                          … essentially doing vanity metrics or for verifiably, wrongly claiming graphs going a certain way (making things faster, reducing failures, etc. when just not letting requests in, not counting them as failures for example).

                          … seeming stressed.

                          Pretty sure I’ve done all of that at some point in my career, at least unintentionally.

                          I think a lot of this is related to people seeing a hundred percent of what they do, but less than that if what others do. And perception as in the examples above is easily skewed. Secret agreements and big projects certainly add to that being reinforced.

                          Adding incentives like that is really hard to do right and there’s certainly other areas where they backfire. Tax benefits, grants, etc. certainly lead to people and companies doing the exact opposite of what the goal was many times before. That’s neither to say that there is malicious intent nor that these measures are bad per see, just that they can lead to unintended outcomes rather easily it seems.

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                            Isn’t planning for the bonus just greed?

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                              That’s certainly what the company would like you to believe!

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                                And what do you believe?

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                                  I think it’s not. My last company had bonus included in our annual salary. It said something like: here is your base, there is your bonus, based on projections. It adds up to this total amount. It means that company was informing that is what you get… but don’t count in it.