Vulgarity, taciturnity and tantrums. The jeopardy of bonus season

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"It's such a weird day," says a former MD from the markets business of UBS. "Such a weird day - you go to a room, receive the envelope, look inside it, and then you go back to your desk and express no emotion. It's difficult to know what to say - you just fake interest in your work until you leave."

"There's nothing to be gained from talking about your bonus," agrees an ex-MD at J.P. Morgan. "It's vulgar and will make people uncomfortable. You'll be in tremendous trouble from your employer if they find you've disclosed anything, and your colleagues will feel aggrieved if your bonus is large or lose respect for you if it's small. There is no upside."

At this time of year, therefore, bonuses are the pachyderm in the room. Some people have been paid well. Some people have been zeroed. Some people have been told that everyone's been paid down, when this isn't actually true. Who's who? In most cases, no one knows. "You go and stand by the coffee machine and it can be tough. You don't know what to say, where to look," says the UBS MD, recollecting.

A series of coded phrases have evolved to help traverse this treacherous terrain. "People go around asking, 'You happy?'," says one J.P. Morgan saleswoman. "You hear that a lot. The really pushy ones will ask whether you're buying that car, or celebrating with that special whisky or whatever."

What do you say when someone probes your personal pay figure? If you're French, nothing at all: "We don't speak about this in France," says one French M&A banker.- "It's not acceptable here." In England, people respond to "Are you happy?" with claims that they're "fine", says the J.P. Morgan saleswoman. "They're pretty guarded. But I'm American, so I'll usually say when I'm not happy. - Then again, maybe that's just me and politically it's not a good idea anyway," she adds.

Ideally, coded bonus disclosures could be used for mutual gain. "You want to know roughly where you stand in comparison to everyone else, so that you can figure whether you've been underpaid. There's a solidarity. But you don't want to give away too much about your relative position to competitive colleagues," says the saleswoman. - "It's a difficult call."

Ultimately bonus gossip comes down to a combination of systems theory and game theory. - Who is the node in the office with the greatest access to reliable pay information? Should you disclose your approximate compensation to them in the hope of establishing your location in the compensation hierarchy?

"There are people who somehow know everything," says the J.P. Morgan MD. "I've had conversations with colleagues who've known the numbers of people on my team, even though I've told them nothing. You never know whether they've seen an open spreadsheet, or someone in HR has let everything slip."

In London, the EU bonus rules have helped temper emotions. "In the old days you had disappointed people screaming and shouting on the trading floor," says the former UBS MD. "It's different now though," he adds. "- Bonuses are lower and the stakes aren't as high as they used to be." While bonuses are lower, however, the variance between them is higher: "If you've been zeroed and no one else has, you need to know," says the J.P, Morgan saleswoman.  Good luck trying to find that out.


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