News and Tribune

November 22, 2012

STAWAR: Are you gnawing on a Cratchit turkey?

By TERRY STAWAR
Local columnist

— The leftovers that many Americans are enjoying, after an exhausting day of shopping, may come from a turkey that was paid for by their employer.

I remember my father often got more than one free turkey during the holiday season — the steel mill where he was an electrician always gave him one and he usually also got one from the city, because he was a volunteer fireman.

Where I grew up, the free Thanksgiving turkey was a cherished tradition, along with a canned Polish ham for Christmas. J. B. Reed at The New York Times reports that that only about 3 percent of employers nationally provide actual turkeys these days and the practice was in decline even before the great recession lead to further cutbacks. Reed says the free turkeys were a ritual back when unions were strong and companies tried to “counter labor’s influence by taking a stab at paternalism.” Free turkeys are seen by some as a relic of those days before workers could negotiate fringe benefits.

Like so many of our modern Christmas customs, labor historians speculate that giving holiday turkeys to workers started with the Charles Dickens’ classic, “A Christmas Carol.” Presumably the tradition began back in 19th-century England, when bosses emulated the reformed miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, who, after being set straight by the three Christmas ghosts, sent a large prize turkey to his employee, Bob Cratchit. Hence the name the “Cratchit Turkey.”

In the United States, Franklin Fairbanks, a Boston industrialist, heard a dramatic reading of “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve in 1867. He was so moved by the story that he gave his employees the next day off from work and provided each of them with a turkey.

Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University, believes that turkey giveaways also served another social purpose — Americanization. At the turn of the century when factory floors and assembly lines were crowded with newly arrived immigrants, the free holiday turkey introduced them to an American tradition helping them integrated into American society.

And finally, we Americans just hate the idea than anyone should go through the holiday season without their turkey dinner. And we put our money where our mouth is, in this regard, as we spend about $875 million to consume about 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving alone.

The military traditionally goes to extraordinary lengths to make sure every soldier gets his or her holiday turkey dinner. General Everett Busch’s Quartermaster Hall of Fame citation says, “General Busch was so successful at keeping supplies forward that every soldier in the Third Army had a turkey dinner for Christmas Day 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.”

We should also remember that the first meal that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin ate on the moon was turkey with all of the trimmings. NASA even has its own recipe for cornbread stuffing. I suppose technically all these are instances of employer-provided turkeys.

Some companies have been just as relentless preserving their turkey giveaway traditions. When turkeys were rationed during World War II, Jake Swirbul, from the Grumman Corp. went to the trouble to buy, incubate, and hatch turkey eggs just so his company would have holiday turkeys to give to employees.

While the free Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham may be becoming a thing of the past, employers have found ways to modernize the tradition. One of my former bosses switched from handing out real turkeys to giving grocery store gift cards in amounts that were equivalent to the cost of a turkey.

Although employees might use the card to buy gasoline or beer, he always insisted on calling them turkey cards. I never received an actual turkey or a ham, but our daughter was once given a lemon meringue pie, which she proudly brought to Christmas dinner. We decided that it would be ungracious to check the “sell by” date.

According to the Refresh Leadership website’s poll, this year 23 percent of businesses plan to give holiday cash bonuses and 15 percent plan to give gift cards. About one in five businesses said they don’t plan on giving any rewards at all this year.

There may, however, be some significant regional differences. In a September survey of 188 companies located in the St. Louis Metropolitan area, about 57 percent of the companies said that they provided gifts other than parties to their employee in November and /or December. About a third of them give away cash while another 20 percent give food gift cards.

How do employees feel about such gifts?

Some employees have taken the turkey giveaway pretty seriously. In 1983, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Chattanooga, Tenn., filed a formal grievance against Vulcan Ironworks when the company abruptly halted the practice of giving employees a Thanksgiving turkey. This has been a tradition for more than 20 years. The grievance was ultimately denied by an arbitrator, who found that the turkeys were outside the purview of the union’s contract and were technically not compensation, like a cash bonus would have been. Despite claiming that the free turkeys were eliminated due to financial constraints, Vulcan continued to give its machinists Christmas hams.

Parago Inc., a Texas consulting firm, recently surveyed workers and found that about 70 percent of them don’t expect holiday gifts this year. More than 60 percent said that a $25 gift card would more than satisfy their expectations, while 85 percent said they would be quite happy with a $100 bonus.

Compensation experts like David Van De Voort from Buck Consultants in Chicago, are critical of holiday gifts that are not part of an overall incentive plan. He says, “I’ve always been leery of the Christmas bonus, which suggests that it’s just a gift from the company, as opposed to something that’s a true reward for performance.”

As for me, I’m not so sure about that. I personally like the idea that the company gift just expresses appreciation for the individual. Tying it to productivity or performance sullies the holiday goodwill aspect of the custom. Can’t we set aside the profit motive at least once a year?

I do , however, believe that Van De Voort is on target when he warns that such rewards can backfire, especially if businesses have recently taken away other benefits. When employees believe that their “holiday gift” is really just their rightful compensation repackaged to make their bosses feel good, resentment is a natural consequence. Also in situations where there has been significant downsizing or lay-offs, surviving employees may feel that the resources used for their “gift” should have gone to saving their co-worker’s jobs instead.

In another online survey, conducted by Harris Interactive, 73 percent of a sample of employees said the most desired employer holiday gift was simply cash. This was followed by a raise, additional paid time off and grocery gift cards. Only 4 percent of employees said they wanted a holiday party — even if there was an open bar. Evidently most of them preferred to celebrate with the people of their own choosing.

This year, we bought our Thanksgiving turkey before I got the Kroger gift card that my work place so thoughtfully provided. The card actually paid for some of our regular groceries but I still pretend that it was the turkey — “Holiday Garlic Bologna” just doesn’t have the same ring.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. As a local columnist, he’s still hungrily waiting for his newspaper holiday bonus. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com