Corporate Damage: The Golden Handcuffs

Of the three facets of Corporate Damage I have identified, the “Abusive Relationship” is my favourite. It addresses the emotional impact of corporate work and is based on the premise that we enter into an emotional, as well as legal and financial contract with our employers. Regardless of how nonchalant (“It’s just a job”) or how detached (“It’s business”) you may think you are from your job or employer, it is inevitable that an emotional connection will form on some level. This is because your body is an emotional being – as well as a physical and mental one. Do you really think it is possible to leave behind a whole aspect of your human body every time you enter an office building?

No, of course not. The fact that most (if not all!) of your work headaches are related to people matters is proof of this. Politics, egos, tantrums, agendas, ‘buy-in’ – all of the complicating factors of day-to-day corporate life exist because people are human and they have emotions. The problem is this – the business world is based on the same Newtonian model of reality as Western medicine – it views the body as a machine and dismisses the role of the mind and emotions.

Your job is a significant mental, physical and emotional investment. When you enter into an employment contract, it is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘relationship’. This relationship is based on a ‘give-and-take’ principle just as any other relationship. On the surface, the give-and-take contract is simple, an employee gives something (work) and receives something back (a salary). But employees also give energy, time, commitment, loyalty – they become mentally and emotionally engaged with the company and in return they expect acknowledgement, reward and recognition. In other words, they expect to feel valued in ways other than financial compensation.

The ‘golden handcuffs’ occur when both employer and employee have become fixated on the monetary aspect of the give-and-take relationship. The employer promises the employee significant financial reward (bonuses, share options, promotions with huge pay rises) which require all sorts of sacrifices – overtime, performing above-and-beyond duties, meeting demanding performance targets or simply ‘waiting it out’. The employee, lured by the reward, exerts the extra effort required and enters into a cycle of constantly giving to meet these demands so they can take the reward. However, research conducted by Abraham Maslow in the 1960’s indicates that financial rewards rate lower on an individual’s wellbeing requirements than the emotional connections and relationships they forge. In addition, Maslow’s model of self-actualisation points out that jobs which provide real meaning, purpose and true personal development are more important to employees. 

When recalling the day I received my first pay cheque after reaching a significant career milestone, I had expected to see my pay rise and feel elated, rewarded, that my efforts and sacrifices had all been justified and ‘worth it’. Instead, my instant reaction was “it’s not enough”. In actuality this was a ridiculous reaction because the payment was more than enough, but I realised that the financial reward I’d been longing for wasn’t enough to vindicate what I had ‘given’ emotionally and mentally to the company. Put simply, the company had not given me anything emotionally or mentally back so the overall reward was not great enough. There was no personal face-to-face congratulations, no ‘thank-you’ for giving up weekends and family member’s birthday parties, and certainly no acknowledgement of the nights I had spent dreaming about spreadsheets. Also, seeing colleagues who had worked just as hard miss out because they failed to secure the political support required to attain promotion, made it seem more like good luck than true compensation.

Relying on financial reward as the sole means of ‘getting back’ from the employer is a dangerous trap. The employee becomes ‘locked’ into a pattern of depending on financial reward to make it all feel worthwhile, which is only exacerbated when the rewards become essential to sustaining mortgage payments, school fees or lifestyle choices. The golden handcuffs are well and truly on. I ponder, how many people who receive big bonuses or get that illusive promotion are still not happy? More often than not these people still harbour feelings of discontentment, which generates another problem – guilt. With more financial security and success than others they should be happy and feel they have no right to complain. So in both the quantum world and business management theory, their discontentment is justified, because it isn’t about the money, what is feeding their emotional being?

Golden handcuffs do not just create problems for the employee, they also create a dilemma for the employer. Having disillusioned, cynical and bitter employees that are ‘waiting for a package’ or ‘too expensive to retrench’ is not exactly beneficial to staff productivity, morale or company performance. However when you have a workforce in golden handcuffs, that’s what you risk creating.

I am not proposing a solution which sees employers offering free hugs or fluffy cultural change campaigns, the answer is in awareness. It is time to realise that companies are not impassive machines comprising unemotional employees whose relationship with the employer is solely based on their take home salary. This awareness starts with the employee acknowledging the importance of their emotional attachment to the company and employers ceasing to ignore that this attachment exists. Once awareness is created, employees can take responsibility for their emotional needs and start asking for them to be met - it might be as simple as asking their manager for a thank-you every now and then.