Strange Tales Of The Ethically Clueless 1%: When A Birthday Gift Is Worse Than No Gift At All

"Oh, thank you, kind sir!"

“Oh, thank you, kind sir!”

The title of Ethics Dunce doesn’t do Fort Wayne Newspapers CEO Mike Christman justice.

In order to “celebrate” his employees’ birthdays, and, of course, recognize his loyal staff’s value, hard work, industry and loyalty, he gives each member of his corporate family a small token of his  appreciation on his or her birthday, and I do mean small token: a $1.25 token that can be used to buy a soda or a snack at a company vending machine.

How condescending, demeaning, disrespectful, insulting and, of course, cheap: the equivalent of a pat on the head. In the Gilded Age, rich men would occasionally drop nickles on the street for the street urchins to pick up. John D. Rockefeller was the most famous practitioner of this form of low-level charity, though he would use dimes. During the Depression, though he was still a billionaire, he switched to nickels. (Nickels in the Great Depression were worth a lot more than $1.25 today.) His beneficiaries were children, however.

If a lousy token for a soda—not even the cash, so at least a lucky birthday “boy” or “girl” could use it to buy something he or she wanted, but a token—is the measure of esteem my employer holds for me, that information is a lot more valuable than the $1.25. I now know that I am regarded as a pathetic urchin by my employer, who deigns to show his generosity and respect by acting as if I will jump up and down with glee for a snack, like a spaniel. He will get no thanks from me for this equivalent of a dog biscuit, for my loyalty and dedication will not be sold that cheaply to someone so devoid of ethical instincts and decency.That birthday token will find its way back to him in an envelope with an “I quit, you silly, pompous yourself a damn soda!” note, because thrusting that “gift” where it belongs would be illegal, though infinitely more satisfying.

A bit more of this kind of conduct, and Occupy Wall Street may get me yet.

Facts: Jim Romansesko


24 thoughts on “Strange Tales Of The Ethically Clueless 1%: When A Birthday Gift Is Worse Than No Gift At All

  1. I don’t know, it’s not like the boss is obligated to do anything at all. At our company you get a card from the CEO on your birthday- no message, just a simple birthday card with his signature (and there is great debate whether it is hand-signed or a stamp). That may cost more than $1.25 (they are nice cards) but it’s basically useless, and I think I’d rather have a soda.

    If the head of a sizable company wants to give some form of recognition to his employees for a birthday, what do you think would be appropriate? It’s not plausible to search out a meaningful heartfelt gift, nor is a sizable amount of money practical (if they’re going to hand out cash once a year it will be a Christmas/Year End bonus anyway). I don’t see the problem with the sentiment being “You’re stuck here on your birthday, sorry, but have a free Coke while you’re here.”

      • A buck and a quarter is way better than what those guys at the Chateau d’If get on their birthday.

        Reminds me of my sister, a teacher, whose principal attached a huge binder clip, a dollar and a piece of candy to their boxes as Christmas holiday appreciation tokens.

        • Ah dang. didn’t finish that. Needless to say each of her teacher co-workers were quietly livid at the impotent gesture. They each agreed that not being given a trivial item is better than being a given a trivial item.

      • Maybe I’m more of a cynic or an introvert than you, but that would feel insencere and forced. When I worked with a relatively small group, recognition was genuine as we all knew each other. In a larger company, if they CEO pops in on everyone’s birthday to shake hands and compliment them, I know I’d just be waiting for it to be over so I could go back to what I was doing. If I bump into him in the elevator and he says something friendly, that would be different, but not as a pre-fabbed birthday tradition.

        I don’t see the expectation of “jumping up and down with glee” for a snack, it’s just something vaguely nice. If there were a big ceremony about it, something to imply it was a big deal, then it would be a farce. If it’s just a casual gesture, then why be upset about it?

        • Yes, a matter of scale is relevant. I’m certain at whatever level within a company in which community is most readily felt, it would be appropriate for that level supervisor (with whom the employee actually holds a relative amount of rapport and personal relationship) to acknowledge and display appreciation.

        • It is a farce.

          And if the CEO can’t be personal and sincere, then, as the title suggests, nothing is preferable. My paycheck is enough: he’s not my pal. But if he presumes to be something more, than he should d it, don’t just do the barest, perfunctory minimum and expect me to be grateful.

          An insult.

          • I think you’re projecting some expectation of gratitude- is he going in and presenting them with this token and standing around waiting for tearful thanks? Or is it something their immediate supervisor drops by their desk? If a CEO feels like birthdays are important enough to be recognized but runs a big enough company that he doesn’t legitimately know all of his employees then it’s no insult to provide a small token (literally or otherwise). If there’s no strings attached and no expectation of slavering gratitude as you seem to imply, I don’t know why you have such a problem with it.

            Looking at the link, it’s just something you stop by and pick up if you want it and ignore if you don’t. All the other comments are people complaining about how hard it is to get new equipment, or assuming the value will be added to your paycheck and taxed (despicable if true). I say if the gift comes with no strings (and actual expected gratitude is a string) then you’re just looking a gift horse in the mouth.

  2. Taking the story as posted, since I can’t find any other information on this, I can think of several possible reasons a token worth a $1.25 and not something more substantial is ethical. I can’t think of any unethical reasons unless the company is completely broke and can’t even afford to buy a soda for an employee. This story is just too short on facts, is this company money being used, his own money, what is the company/state policy on gifts, does the vending machine company give out these tokens and he figured this was the best way to equably distribute them? As with gift cards it makes sense that you include the value of such so that you can properly select an item or have on hand the additional amount needed.
    The bottom line is receiving a small token from your employer on your birthday is ethical, although a cake or cupcake may be more personal it takes all the concerns of tastes, diet, favoritism and time out of the equation. It is unethical to expect more, something different or something of greater value.

    • It’s low level, bottom of the barrel ethical, in that it isn’t unethical. It’s somewhat degrading and insulting, and shows absolutely no hint of respect or appreciation of how human beings think or feel, which is why I call it “ethically clueless.” I could argue that since it will not provoke any positive response and shouldn’t, it’s a waste of company funds whether the company is broke or not.

      I would still give it back. I don’t need your stinking token.

  3. Could have been worse – a notification of the $25 contribution fee for the annual Christmas party.
    Attendance by invitation only – for clients and senior management.

  4. My former company gave you a day off when it was your birthday. My new company gives me a card. I use it to start camp fires when I go camping.

    • They also had onions hanging on their belts, if I recall. Like my friend named Squidgie…well, that wasn’t his real name, but his friends called him that because he lived over a massage parlor. That place was run by a Burmese fellow who never could pronounce the word “plethora,” and it always came out “smelt.” Speaking of fish…

  5. I can sort of imagine how it got that way. Maybe it started as a gag, “You want a birthday present? Here, have a Coke! Hah!” Then it caught on as a gag, and everyone got a Coke on their birthday. Then it became a company tradition. But then then company grew to 1000 employees, and suddenly Human Resources began to worry about things like dietary restrictions and preferences — religious, medical, or otherwise — so in order to preserve the tradition while accommodating diversity, they decided it would be best to give out cash value so the employees could make their own choices…thus utterly sucking the life out of it.

  6. How about 10% off 1 item in the gift shop? This is not a hypothetical situation. I think too many leaders read Dogbert’s Secret Management Handbook and took it seriously.

  7. Giving someone a token be it money or a card says more about the personality of the giver than the recipient. I remember when I was younger and working for a coin and stamp dealer who begrudgingly gave me a 5 cent raise after working for the company for a year. My response was to shortly thereafter quit as I felt that I was treated with narcissistic contempt. Anyway, this guy you describe needs to read a little Charles Dickens but he’s probably too busy trying to figure out the navigation system on his top of the line Mercedes. 😉

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