Fifty Shades of a Holiday Bonus

How one CEO Santa shows the way to a cheerier future for companies and workers thanks to an erotic book trilogy.

Naughty can be nice.

You may have heard what publisher Random House did with the profits generated largely by its best-selling erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey. Random House chief executive Markus Dohle decided to share the wealth. Every employee who worked there at least a year gets a bonus of $5,000.

But this CEO-as-Santa story seems to be the exception more than the rule these days. And in the big scheme of things, what companies have been giving employees in recent years amounts to something closer to coal.

Yes, there’s evidence that more small businesses plan to give out bonuses this holiday season. Still, we’re talking about just 35 percent of small firms compared to 29 percent last year. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman reports that labor’s share of gross domestic income has fallen from about 60 percent in 1960 to roughly 55 percent. And recently real wages have been falling. Meanwhile, corporate profits have been climbing this year.

Reasons for these shifts fall into a couple of buckets. Two possible culprits are increased automation and greater monopoly power—summed up by Krugman as the rise of robots and robber barons. Another possible explanation is lower-wage labor overseas putting downward pressure onU.S. wages.

Don’t forget old-fashioned greed. Company owners and executives taking what can be taken from employees and giving as little as possible. CEOs and stockholders as Scrooge.

No wonder employees want cash more than anything else this holiday season.

There’s an interesting discussion among compensation experts about the importance of “cash clarity” when it comes to end-of-year bonuses. Our own Ann Bares uses this term to argue that clear disclosure about compensation objectives and bonus programs is something even cash-strapped organizations can provide. “Tell them why things are done the way they are,” she says.

I’m sure such transparency is smart. But how far does it go? I doubt many organizations are going to send this memo: “Don’t expect much this Christmas. We have the economic leverage to suppress your wages and squeeze more profits out of you.”

Maybe what’s more important is the spirit of the season: generosity itself.

A sizeable bonus or commitment to profit-sharing fits into what Robert Levering, co-founder of the Great Placeto Work Institute calls “giftwork.” Levering, whose organization determines the annual Fortune list of the best employers, says that when companies and workers get in the habit of exchanging the workplace equivalent of presents—think perks from employers, above-and-beyond efforts from employees—trust develops. Trust, in turn, is at the heart of great places to work, Levering and the Institute argue. And those places, by the way, consistently outperform the stock market overall.

I’m not sure whether Dohle was at all calculating when he announced his splashy bonus made possible by the saucy book. But think of all the free advertising he gained by it (including this blog post).

Consider the goodwill he gained among employees—who apparently applauded for minutes on end upon hearing the news and are likely to work even harder to find and publish the next Fifty Shades of Grey. And reflect on the boost he gave Random House’s reputation in an age when a good name matters as never before.

Naughty can be nice. So can plain old nice.

Ed Frauenheim is senior editor at Workforce. Comment below or email efrauenheim@workforce.com.