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A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every 25th of December! — Charles Dickens

Well, it’s that time of year again: Carolers at the door demanding figgy pudding (whatever that is), the aroma of fruit cake (basted with rum) wafting from hot ovens, stockings hanging from the mantle above a gas-fired yule log, colorfully wrapped presents magically appearing under an artificial (fire-treated) fir tree, decorated stores crowded with bustling shoppers, eager to score that perfect gift for that special someone—all that wonderful holiday commotion designed to inspire the traditional Christmas cheer. Are you, Billy Bidmeister, feeling the spirit yet?


Not hardly. The only tradition you are experiencing is that annual traumatic identification with Clark Griswold and the anxiety you share with him over that essential custom of all holiday rituals: the pending (or, perhaps, mythical) Christmas bonus. The only spirit you’re feeling right now is the anodyne of the small-batch bourbon you’re nursing to help ward off that yearly apprehension. What is the source of this ceremonial unease? The uncertainty stems from the nature of bonuses. In the construction business, bonuses, when and if they do occur, consist of two types: formulaic and/or discretionary. For estimators, formulae derive strictly from volume and sales. And while volume is a good objective indicator regarding how hard you worked all year, sales are often based on forces beyond your control—and can consequently be rather random. Discretionary bonuses come from the subjective generosity (or the lack thereof) of your superiors. The downside of the discretionary method occurs when personalities inevitably come into play. Fortunately, most bonuses are based on a tempered blend of the two approaches, i.e., discretion mitigated by performance, both individual and company-wide. Unfortunately, the predictability of any award at all or its level of significance is still maddeningly murky.


Now, your rational side knows that bonuses are not entitlements. But that said, after a grueling year of churning out estimates back-to-back, you feel in your bones that you deserve one. And having received a healthy reward for the past 10 years or so, it’s hard not to rely on that second check to see you through the burgeoning holiday expenditures. Still, your sales have fallen off as of late, and the profitability of your company as a whole is still rebounding from the pandemic slump. Having heard nothing through the grapevine, you’re beginning to anticipate something similar to a subscription to the jelly-of-the-month club for your year-end reward.


No, you haven’t put a down payment on putting in a swimming pool or anything, but your wife has been busy shopping for gifts and Christmas frills—maxing out credit cards based on previous years’ awards, and she’s got her heart set on new living room furniture. There’s that, not to mention that all of your kids’ wish lists have grown exponentially to include upgrades on all of their tech gear. Of course, you won’t know what or even if the award will be until a few days before Christmas, when the year-end numbers come in. Meanwhile, you are planning to drink cheaper bourbon and vowing to enroll in your bank’s Christmas club to blunt next year’s angst—same empty oaths as last year.


OK, with the big day rapidly approaching, the anticipation has finally become more than you can stand. Coming right out and asking the boss is way too brazen to even consider, and even a vague innuendo might be misconstrued as expectation. Besides, his poker face has been like stone lately anyway. Still, you’ve found a secret conduit that’s paid off in the past. You approach the payroll clerk and flirt with the notion that “a little something extra” might be in the offing. Always before, a giggle or a lift of the eyebrow was an indicator of a good year. But all she has to share now is that the boss has been particularly reticent this year. Ya think?


At last, the Thursday morning before Christmas Eve, the boss enters your office and closes the door. The atmosphere immediately becomes electric.


“Billy,” he says rather deadpan, “I want you to know that I appreciate the hard work that you’ve put in over the last year.”


It almost sounds like an apology for real turkey of a bonus. Could it be? He shakes your trembling hand as he hands over an envelope. Of course you don’t open it in his presence. That would be really bad form. You manage a “th-thank you.” You probe his face for a smile or some cheerful expression. But the mask remains as cold as flint as he turns and makes his exit.


You close the door behind him to be alone with your emotions as your mind runs the gamut between the jelly-of-the-month certificate, a Starbucks gift card or a typical generous bonus. Your heart races as you eye your name, Billy Bidmeister, in the cellophane window on the envelope. You toy with the notion of waiting for a calm moment, but you tear into it instead and remove the contents with quivering hands …

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.

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