Holiday bonuses get rarer

Tradition: Two out of three U.S. companies aren't playing Santa this year, and money isn't the only reason.

December 20, 2003|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The HR Team Inc. staff spent four hours in a spa. Buck Distributing Co. handed out Lenox china and cash. McCormick & Company Inc. is giving its thousands of employees a 12-day year-end vacation.

Lucky, lucky workers.

Gone are the days when Americans could count on their employer to give them something extra for the holidays. Two out of three U.S. organizations aren't giving bonuses this year, according to a survey by Hewitt Associates, an international human resources firm. No cash. No turkeys. No facials.

It's as much about structural cost-cutting and pay-for-performance as a short-term reaction to economic tough times. More than 40 percent of businesses that no longer give gifts canceled the tradition in the 1990s, said Hewitt Associates.

But some companies still play Santa instead of Scrooge, a mix of big organizations with traditions no one wants to kill and small operations where everyone knows everyone else's name.

"People want to know that you appreciate them and respect them," said Eileen M. Levitt, president of The HR Team, a Columbia outsourcing and consulting business with six full-time employees. "Everybody works hard."

Yesterday, HR Team staff took a half-day to relax at Farashe The Day Spa, to luxuriate in fluffy white robes, massages and "mud therapy." Faint music and sweet scents wafted into the low-lighted rooms. In a cocoon of blankets with a seaweed mask on her face, all you could see of HR generalist Ann Seeney was her wide smile.

"Oh, I love my boss," she said.

In addition to generous time off, McCormick, based in Sparks, gives workers a turkey a few days before Thanksgiving. With 2,750 employees in Maryland alone, that's a lot of birds.

"We have many blessings to count," said Mac Barrett, vice president of corporate communications for McCormick, of why it hasn't followed the trend of canceling holiday perks. "Years ago, the leadership of the organization instilled among employees the notion that you work hard and do the best you can throughout the year, and then end of the year affords an opportunity for extra time with family and friends. And that is a custom which has endured."

At inSITE Training & Development in Columbia, the tradition is all about suspense.

For a decade, President Susan S. Porter has taken her employees - or employee, depending on the size of her work force at the time - and their spouses on trips with secret destinations.

Once they ended up sitting on giant pillows at a Moroccan restaurant in Washington, eating with their fingers while being entertained by a belly dancer. Another time they walked into an interactive play in Baltimore about an outrageous Italian wedding, wondering if they were crashing a real ceremony.

"It was great fun," said Nancy Ferris Huggins, who was Porter's director of marketing for three years. "I liked the element of surprise."

Ronald G. Downey, a psychology professor at Kansas State University, thinks small companies are more likely to do something extra around the holidays - he consults for one that gives its employees fresh bacon from a local butcher's shop.

But he doesn't think it necessarily follows that big corporations are stingy. Being hands-off about the holidays can look like a good way to avoid offending someone as companies become increasing multinational, with employees whose religions don't place any significance on the end of December.

Still, doing nothing doesn't seem like the best approach to Downey.

"As we become a culture, a country with people with wide variety of backgrounds, people have to find a middle ground that helps them - helps everyone - to celebrate the holiday season," he said. "For many people, this is a period of celebration."

Laurel Regional Hospital gave out turkeys for years but decided against it this season as more employees come from cultures that don't care for meat. Now the hospital purchases $10 gift certificates to a variety of grocery stores so everyone can get exactly what they want.

There are no holiday bonuses at the Rouse Co. - those are linked to performance and distributed in February - but the Columbia real-estate investment trust is throwing a kids' dream party for its employees, their children and grandchildren tomorrow.

Kids will win prizes for throwing "snowballs" through the cut-out hole in a snowman's stomach. They can choose between doughnuts made before their eyes and cupcakes they make themselves. There will be face painting, magic shows and costumed characters applying temporary tattoos.

When Buck Distributing Co.'s 112 employees gathered for their holiday party two weeks ago, they got something, too - Lenox china, a tradition for 16 years. The long-timers have graduated from plates to stemware.

If some of the men aren't entirely appreciative of the fine dining possibilities, there's always the other gift to get them in the spirit: $100 for every year of service up to $2,000 - and a crisp $5 bill from 91-year-old Katherine Buck, whose husband started the Upper Marlboro company.

"I'd have to [cut] something else before I stop doing that," said Betty Buck, her daughter and president of the business. "It's important to us not just as a company but as a family."

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