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Diary of an innocent in-houser

16 December 13

'Twas the night before bonus time... but who was going to play Santa?

November can be quite a busy month. All staff bonus proposals are to be with Ronnie, the group chief executive, by the first Friday in December, a longstanding tradition, followed by the equally traditional wrangle about the legal department being a “cost centre”, therefore deserving of smaller bonuses than a “profit centre”. The usual path is followed of submitting bonuses of at least twice the realistic amount knowing, again by tradition, that they would be promptly halved even before the “wrangle”.

My own bonus was on a “shoogly peg”, as the chairman would say, as I had stepped way out of the legal department box in taking an unbidden strategic role at a recent management meeting. I proposed that we dispose of the sales arm of the building division on the grounds of its constant HR issues, its potential to create serious reputational damage and the astonishing ability of its key managers to collect their large bonuses for sales to businesses that went rapidly into receivership before payment.

The HR issues seemed to stem principally from senior managers’ unrivalled skill in creating employment law dramas from unbelievably politically incorrect behaviour, most notoriously the preceding year’s office Christmas party. The details should not be shared in a respectable publication. Suffice to say, the evening offered me the opportunity to recruit a new employment lawyer, and our external solicitors had the benefit of sizable fees from defending substantial claims against us by a hotel, a bus company, a taxi company, a number of innocent unconnected guests at the same hotel and a nearby car showroom, and for negotiating with the local fire brigade and police over the issue of false alarms. I had attended the event the year before, and had resolved never to go again.

Early November this year found me with an urgent file on my desk from Geordie, the building division’s sales director. A customer had bought £200,000 worth of material, had gone bust before paying and the managing director had now joined another company. Could he be pursued personally, was the question. With great difficulty, was the answer, but not one that satisfied Geordie. While musing on these events I had a call from the man himself.

“Jimmy!” he cried, “How goes it?” I rapidly planned in my mind the usual tutorial on limited liability, and how to get people to call me James, not Jimmy, but was wrong footed by his follow-up.

“How’s your great aunt in Brighton?” he chirruped. Great aunt? Brighton? What was he on about now? “I don’t have a –”, I started, then realised the trap too late.

“Oh!” cried Geordie, “I could have sworn her sudden illness was the reason you couldn’t make last year’s Christmas bash. Never mind, we MUST have you this year, Jimbo, you were so helpful driving some of the younger ones home and not making a fuss about us having to valet your car. Twice, was it? Our wonderful group CEO will be there too.”

I asked what day it would be and was advised it would be a forthcoming Thursday evening in a very grand country hotel; in fact, the night before Ronnie’s staff bonuses discussion.

“Sorry, Geordie, it’s a non-starter”, I said. “Very busy week, lots of business and domestic demands so I’ll have to miss it. Anyway, why a Thursday night? Surely your sort of Christmas bash needs a weekend for recovery?”

“Well,” Geordie answered, “it was the only evening we could get, but Fridays are generally regarded as QWE in Sales.”

“QWE?”

“Quasi-week-ends, like Mondays.”

Having extracted myself from the disaster zone, I got a call from Ronnie. “Jim – sorry, James – I’ve a big, big favour please. I am due to go to the dreadful – sorry, lively – building division sales Christmas do and dress up as Santa. Stupid of me I know, but realise I’m double booked. I don’t want to let Geordie down completely – he loves head office people to attend. Could you be a real star and do the honours? You’re sort of the right build”, he tactlessly added.

My silence no doubt spoke volumes, as I weighed up the appalling indignity of being dressed as Santa surrounded by rioting sales staff for what would be a long and generally frightful evening, against the opportunity to do a big personal favour for the CEO the night before he decided bonuses.

“Ronnie,” I said, “I deem it an honour you thought of me for such a role. Consider it all agreed, and I will be delighted to phone Geordie straightaway and explain the new position.”

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