I won employee of the year

At my very first job decades ago in a long since vanished barbecue joint making $2.50/hour, I learned a valuable lesson that served me for three decades: stamina. I found out on the first day of my very first job, I could work my peers into the ground, hell I could work my bosses into the ground! I don’t know where it came from, it was innate and I was blessed — for lack of a better word — to have it. For years that one characteristic was all that was required for me to make a decent living. If I was smarter here and there or had some latent talent in a random situation, it was just icing really. Stamina and stamina alone was all it took for me to succeed at every entry level job held and move up, fast. Stamina, along with its kissing cousin persistence, even went on to define my personal life as an athlete in high school and college, a dedicated rock climber as a yuppy, and now as a middle-aged guy getting into serious physical shape after three-year lapse on the heels of a life changing health issue.

Now I’m forced to face a new reality, one I may be unequipped to survive in: stamina and persistence don’t matter much any more.

A few weeks ago my entire quite large department was rounded up and sat down for an annual awards ceremony where a dozen or so names were called. There is one particular award that is considered the prize, like the last few categories called on Oscar night after the fluff and riffraff have been handed out. When it came time to announce that person at the end of the ritual, it was my name that was called and it was me that walked onto the stage to thunderous applause. It’s our equivalent of employee of the year, it’s based mostly on productivity, but there are some other performance bogeys that have to be met. And I won it. Yay.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, it’s fucking meaningless to me. For starters it carries no value, not even a $25.00 Visa gift card, no raise, no promotion of any kind. It’s galling the award was handed to me by people who are nice enough, but who also on average, have a tenth of my experience, half my education, and almost no track record of professional success, certainly nothing that compares with mine, who I and many others in my department could literally run rings around in every way, and who are somehow still my boss’s boss making a comfortable 80 or 90 grand. Maybe it was just projection, but the feeling of “Yeah we know we’re not worthy to be in charge of winners like you and make five times what you struggle to get by on, so here’s a fake award that carries no value to help us feel better about how bad you and hundreds more are being fucked over,” seemed palpable to me. When I shook hands with the bosses I looked one of them — a guy I actually get along with and like as much as raw envy will allow — square in the eye, leaned in and whispered quietly, “I’m coming for you.” That was the real and only pay off for me.

It’s not that I’m lazy, to coin a phrase from Office Space, it’s that I just don’t care. I’ve been here going on three years now and I make twelve dollars an hour, there is no viable path beyond that dismal rate. The company I work for is the undisputed leader in our niche, we have reported record earnings every year and almost every quarter through the worst recession since 1929, gifts, perks and ISO’s aren’t restricted to the senior execs, they’re lavished on scads of people. Just not low end replaceable people like me. We start as temps at 11 bucks an hour for network and end-user support of what might be called the most complex software creation to ever animate silicon — a job that would have paid 40 or 50 grand a few years ago. The benefits are decent, but they’re being systematically eroded in a big, big way. About one in ten of us are offered FTR slots after a few months, the rest aren’t even fired, they’re just not renewed. I had to work my way up to be allowed to work full time.

We are nickel and dimed all the time, it’s unending. For example, we used to get year end raises at the end of the year, this year that was changed, now they don’t happen until April, boom, money lifted right out of empty pockets and that’s just one of many, many ways we are being systematically robbed. Between the changes in copays for insurance and meds and routine increases in cost of living alone, if I max out my year-end raise and get another 30 to 40 cents an hour, I’ll be about fifty bucks in the hole every month compared to last year even after it kicks in. The only thing that keeps me from leaving is I haven’t found a solid offer that significantly beats what I’m doing now, and the work itself is really interesting and sometimes a lot of fun — if you are a workaholic geeked out born science and tech nerd.

Whenever I tried to politely point out we are profoundly underpaid, the shiftless response was usually along the lines of “This is what the market will bear in a recession and we have stockholders.” I guess I could have pointed out that I’m a retired stock broker who had a thriving practice, with a reasonably good feel for what stockholders want. And while I’m pretty sure my company couldn’t get anyone in America to do what I do for half my pay, I’m equally certain the line to replace my boss’s boss for half of what he makes would stretch around the building because of the same recession. If stockholders want to crank down on wasted labor costs, there they are baby. But I didn’t say that. It wouldn’t make any difference outside of probably getting me fired.

A few months ago my team was all ushered into a conference room where we were subjected to a creepy video in which a highly paid outside consultant explained he had performed an exhaustive scientific study and discovered, much to management’s delight and surprise no doubt, that we were actually paid above the industry average and should be thankful. It flirted with a modern day corporate version right out of Orwell’s imagination.

Here’s the truth in America in 2012 for millions and millions of educated, hard working men and women: it’s ten o’clock here on a Sunday morning of Thanksgiving Week, I’ve run three miles and did a wicked squat workout starting at dawn. Now I’m at my workstation many hours before my shift begins, getting updated on the problems that cropped up overnight, I’ll be here well past midnight. I’ll do this right through the week and through Christmas and through New Year’s Day.

Hey, I’m employee of the year, a natural hard worker at one of the biggest success stories in the tech world … living in a filthy cracker box apartment counting pennies and choosing which bill or medication I can delay paying the longest without losing service or getting sick. The award doesn’t matter when it comes to making a living wage. It doesn’t count for anything.


  1. machintelligence says

    I’m employee of the year.

    Watch out. Those whose heads rise above the crowd tend to get decapitated. I have seen numerous examples.

  2. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    When even the most useful and compliant drones have little to hope for beyond a pat on the head is it any wonder that we desire a different system? Ni dieu ni maître!

  3. says

    12 bucks an hour works out to about 1200/month takehome when everything’s said and done. I’ll tell you, trying to live on that has been a serious gut check. There’s zero disposable income, no margin for error whatsoever. A routine traffic ticket means changing what you buy at the grocery store for a month, a routine car repair means going into savings — that I’m lukcy to have — or for most of us using a pay day loan of some sort if you don’t. You get two or three of those things in one month and you’re on ramen and potted emat product for the quarter.

  4. F says

    I won employee of the year

    Did this employee come in a nice box? What do they do, and do you have to pay them?

    Srsly, They won employee of the year. They’ve got you, right? And your compensation stories mirror my own when I worked for industry. Now I make even less, but my expenses are much lower. The bullshit factor is still high, but not all the time, and there is only one source. Plus I get to help people directly. No retirement of SS though.

  5. Rodney Nelson says

    At least at my company the Employee of the Month gets a $25 gift card and the Employee of the Year gets $500 (less tax and Social Security).

    I’m in management and I see the entry level employees get nickled and dimed. For instance, we used to pay overtime if you worked over eight hours per day. Now you have to work over eight hours in a day and over forty hours in a week. So someone taking off Thanksgiving won’t be paid overtime this week unless they put in eight or more hours of overtime.

  6. lorn says

    You are developing a visceral understanding of what old time union labor understood a very long time ago.

    It comes down to the understanding that employees can consciously control, throttle is a useful term, their output as easily as management can control their pay and benefits. That employee control, and use of that control, is as powerful a weapon and leveraging tool as anything the management has.

    Yes, you are naturally efficient and productive. It is natural for you to be and stay that way. But being an adult means controlling your self and not automatically giving in to your natural tendencies and talents. You don’t have to be as efficient and productive as you might. Your pay and benefits need to be proportional both to your efforts and company profits.

    The rule is that to the extent any employer is a friend of labor, respecting labor as equal partner, sharing in their difficulties and allowing workers to enjoy a fair share of any profits, they deserve a full eight hours of hard, but not debilitating, effort.

    Nobody gets to wear out the labor pool. Employers don’t have the right, under any conditions short of national emergency, to ask for anyone to work harder or longer hours than is reasonably compatible with good health and well being. If an employer is struck with a sudden and unpredictable calamity that requires extra time and effort, and the employer is both friendly to and compatible with labor and the dignity of labor the employees may volunteer to do what is required to fill the gap but this extra effort must be clearly identified as above and beyond what the normal job requirements and it should be lavishly compensated in both ceremony and remuneration. Empty job titles and awards do not apply.

    To the extent the employer fails to share in profits and treats upper management and owners deferentially (ie: using rewards to motivate management while using penalties to motivate labor.) while treating employees with contempt. They do not deserve any effort beyond what is necessary to appear to be nominally working.

    If the business is run unfairly productivity deserves to suffer and any excess energy or creativity can be put to use destroying the company and its management in ways too subtle and varied to detect.

    Show me through word, deed, paycheck and benefits package that I am a valued employee and I will do all in my power to advance your cause as a business. I bring all my creativity and individual initiative to bear and seek to improve profits and productivity of the business, labor, and management. Fall short of that and my dedication, creativity, initiative and efforts will similarly fall short.

    I am not replaceable and I am not a commodity. And neither is the next commodified labor unit you will replace me with. Failure to understand this is behind many business failures.

  7. Tenebras says

    @lorn That looks nice on paper, but in reality it’s a bit different. In a situation where the only two options you have are working your ass off for just enough to survive on, or lose your job and don’t survive, you come to realize just how privileged the idealists are.

  8. lorn says

    It takes a certain amount of courage and acting ability, a bit of imagination, to back off work without it being obvious. It is not a trivial undertaking, there are profound risks, this is serious business, but as long labor fails to take itself seriously, demand respect, and show that they can and will withhold their best efforts they will not be taken seriously.

    As long as you allow them to treat you like a machine, plug you in and you work wide open regardless of how you are treated, you will be treated as a machine. They keep screwing you out of pay and benefits because they can. Management will treat you like cheap replaceable parts because you let them treat them treat you that way. Every nickel they squeeze out of you makes them look better. There is no down side to screwing you over.

    And yes, I have worked this problem in the real world. I’ve been beaten and fired from a couple of job sites. I have also got a lot of respect. I helped drive a business into bankruptcy and then helped make it a going concern when they changed management.

  9. lanir says


    Ideas like that are why a number of the larger, older corporations have spent so much money trying to demonize unions.

    Frankly any employer that does not realize that simply treating employees with a reasonable amount of respect and occasionally doing something nice is not worth my bother to help or hinder. I do what they pay me to do and when another offer comes along I take it. If they waste my time on drama and bullshit and tell me I’m required to do things beyond what they’re paying me for, my concerns and effort taken to look out for their interests dwindles proportionately. These basic ideas are so inherently obvious, such a basic part of how not only our psychologies work but also a part of the other primates and mammals we’ve tested for such things that frankly… If they don’t get it, they’re assuming I’m subhuman. Very, very subhuman. There’s no point trying to reason with people like that and convince them you’re worth more. Just take advantage of the situation as long as you’re stuck with it and don’t give them a second thought once another opportunity comes along. Survival and improving ones situation is the best revenge.

  10. says

    Here comes the unsolicited advice: Quit.

    Hang your own shingle out. Freelance.

    I was you a few years back. I was the go-to guy. The guy who could be counted on to do 80 hours of work in 60 hours of billable time and THEN travel on the weekends (without compensation) to advisory boards.

    It was killing me. The second-to-last straw was the 3-hour conference call I had to participate in on Christmas Eve while I was sitting in a hotel room on what was supposed to be vacation for me and the family. Christmas Eve.

    The LAST straw was being dinged on my annual evaluation for not taking all of my vacation time. And then, almost immediately afterwards, to have my boss tell me I couldn’t go on a scheduled vacation because the press of business was too high. Oh yes. They did that to me.

    I quit caring. Then I quit. I’ve been freelancing for 8+ years now. Never, ever, ever regretted it.

    You’re locked into the old economic model of boss-worker, and it’s wrong for you.

    You’ll make a hell of a lot more money, and have a hell of a lot more fun, and will be tremendously happier and self-fulfilled than you are now.


  11. eriktb says

    I work in retail for a grocery chain on the East Coast. It’s been around for a little over 75 years now. At one point it was actually a difficult place to get a job because they paid well if and if you stuck it out long enough, and you have the joy of pretty damn good benefits too. That has been changing each year for the last 15 years. I’ve got 10 years in with this company and I’ve watched our wonderful costumer service drop like a stone. Upper management gets paid tons to do little more than tell the worker bees to do something, then come back the next week and tell us to do it again and in a different way. Oh and axe our hours every week. Even during holidays.

    Luckily we have a union, and as one of the 30 year guys once told me, we can’t get in trouble for working slowly. Funny thing is, the fact that there are hoops to jump through to actually fire anyone is only really useful thing our union has managed. It’s the only thing we can control here. They don’t want to give us the hours we need to actually do our jobs(these are based off of productivity reports), that’s fine, we just slow down a bit.

  12. harrysanborn says

    Kevin nailed it: Quit

    The only thing that keeps me from leaving is I haven’t found a solid offer that significantly beats what I’m doing now

    If you can’t find another offer for significantly higher, than they may be right, you may not be underpaid. If you can, then take it. If it’s because you enjoy the type of work, then that has a value and you it’s part of your “compensation” – not according to the company, but to you. Similarly, if it’s stability you value, and you don’t want to take the risk, then that too is part of your equation.

    People need to start treating businesses like businesses treat them. Employment is a business agreement between two parties. If one party believes it’s no longer in their interest to continue doing business with the other party they can request a change, and if that change isn’t granted, they can end the relationship.

  13. says

    Kevin, I will quit, it’s inevitable, in about a year and a month and a week and three days. They have me by the healthcare. I live in Texas so even that date isn’t solid. I’ll write a post about it.

  14. Compuholic says

    My field of work will also be the software industry. I will be done with my studies in a few months and I have started to look for a job. I visited a lot of job fairs and read lots of offers and I while I cannot be completely certain how everything will turn out I realize how very lucky I am.

    I live in Germany and wherever I look I get the impression that in general good work is being respected (at least for skilled labor). And it does not matter so much what it is that you are doing. A good electrician or welder can make as much or more than someone who is university educated. And I think that is the way it should be.

    And I get the impression that companies here care a lot more about their employees. My favorite story so far was BMW. BMW was not doing so well a few years ago. Car sales have been very weak. But instead of laying of workers they reached an agreement with their workers that everyone would work less (and payment would be reduced accordingly). The state supported the workers so they could get by. And when things picked up again BMW had their workforce intact and the management decided to pay them a bonus as a “thank you” for staying with them.

    Granted, BMW is an exception. They are known to treat their workforce very well. But I have heard similar stories for many other companies.


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