A Banker’s Guide To Bonus Day

The Evening Standard  –  28 Jan 2010

During my twelve year career as a stockbroker (which strangely enough happened to coincide exactly with what Gordon Brown called ‘the age of irresponsibility’!) I received annual bonuses which grew from £14,000 to £500,000 in an almost perfect straight line. During those boom times I never once felt that what I was doing justified the cash my gormless bosses threw at me and found it almost unbelievable that they kept doing so year in year out. With hindsight I suffered from something psychobabble aficionados refer to as ‘imposter syndrome’ throughout my entire City career.

Rest assured I never revealed these insecurities to any of my colleagues. Instead, every year on ‘B-day’ I would give a bravura acting performance of such conviction that, had he witnessed it, De Niro would have taken notes. As yet more bankers find out the size of their bonuses this week I thought it may be useful to explain some basic guidelines to help out any young City boy or girl who is about to face that most important day of the year …

No-one gets any work done on B-day. There is an air of nervous excitement similar to that experienced on exam results day at school. However, this time everyone about to receive the all-important news is sitting next to each other in a huge open plan office checking out their colleagues’ every facial expression. The other difference is that the stakes are huge – let’s face it, receiving £50K more than you expected to receive on a cold January afternoon can be marginally more rewarding than finding out you didn’t flunk your Latin GSCE! As you sit there pretending to work on a spreadsheet please remember those people around you are can no longer to be classified as colleagues … they’re merely competitors for the firm’s bonus pool. You all know full well that in the previous months your so called work-mates have been busy blowing their own trumpets and stealing your thunder because you have been doing exactly the same. Ethics, never particularly healthy in the City, tend to flat-line completely come December and January!

A brief conversation with several ex-colleagues still working in banking suggested nothing about this bizarre ritual has changed since my day especially as the size of the bonus pool, despite windfall taxes and desperate calls for restraint from politicians, remains in rude health (perhaps £6bn in respect of 2009 versus the previous year’s £4bn and 2007’s £10bn.) One stockbroker at a large European house even told me that back-stabbing and office politics are stronger than ever as bankers realize that 2009’s bumper year may be difficult to repeat and fears grow about the political backlash against mega bonuses.

Aspiring bankers should be aware that B-Day is essentially about pretending to those around you that you are feeling the exact opposite of your actual emotions. First of all, on the morning of B-Day all bankers strive to appear as cool as the Fonz on Mogadon despite the fact that their heart is racing because they know that another crap bonus may mean that their wife can forget about little Tarquin going to Harrow. If you are lucky enough to have a guaranteed bonus then please make sure you don’t seem too relaxed or everyone will know and that can cause unnecessary resentment.

I managed to force my bosses to guarantee the size of my bonus for half of the twelve that I received. I achieved this through a razor-sharp ruthlessness that was motivated by my ever-present fear that I would be found out and sacked for being a chancer who’d got lucky. Every few years I either moved bank or threatened to do so and this approach was fairly common in the City. Of course, guaranteed bonuses nullify the supposed incentivization aspect of the City’s remuneration system and multi-year guarantees have been a major target for irate politicians because they are deemed indicative of the ‘City’s excesses.’ Strangely enough, despite that fact, guaranteed bonuses were exempt from the recently announced windfall tax. This, ironically, was great news for Nomura who used guarantees to persuade many bankers who were previously employed at Lehmans to join its ranks. This hardly seems fair since it was the excessive risk-taking by Lehman’s bankers that caused their bank to crash and sent the financial world in a tailspin. It certainly is a funny old world!

When it’s finally your turn to trundle off into the little room and receive ‘the letter’ from the boss, no matter what figure he gives you, you must act as if he’s just recommended that you vigorously rub a cheese grater on your genitals for the next four hours. Any indication that the bonus is ‘satisfactory’ will be interpreted to mean that you’re actually delirious with joy, which will be duly noted ensuring that next year’s bonus is not increased dramatically. Remember, these heartless toe-rags will only ever pay you the minimum they can get away with!

Interestingly, some City types refer to B-Day as the start of ‘bonus negotiation’. If the figure you’re told is genuinely way too low and you are fairly invaluable to your firm you could angrily explain to your boss that you you’ll be calling up head hunters that very day unless he increases it. I have uttered the words myself after having heard of bankers receiving 20-30% more as a result of their complaints (e.g. perhaps an extra £100-150K) … though for some reason it didn’t work when I tried it!

As you leave the little room all eyes will be following you on the ‘walk of shame’ back to your desk. In truth, the correct approach here is to reveal absolutely no emotion. Showing anger will just suggest you’ve been shafted to everyone. This could result in snide comments and eventually reach the ears of other banks or head-hunters which may suggest you’re not the ‘big swinging dick’ that you pretend to be. However, unbridled joy merely annoys those around you and contradicts the act you gave your boss.

Finally, in the pub after work an understated act of mild smugness is the correct approach. I tended to buy a few bottles of champers whilst at the same time acting like someone pretending to be annoyed. This would test the skills of Larry Olivier himself but became second nature after 12 years in that soul-destroying job.

Of course, the final act you need to play is with your partner. Revealing the true enormity of your award may condemn a good portion of it to being spent on some pointless kitchen refurbishment whilst underestimating it too much may mean her restless eyes wander towards one of those ever-so-wealthy Goldman boys (who on average received $500,000 this year). When I worked in the City, conning colleagues was one thing, but pulling the wool over my girlfriend’s eyes was always an infinitely tougher challenge!

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