The year was 2001. The nation was still reeling and somber following the 9/11 attacks. For us New Yorkers, it was especially hard. Although the attacks on the towers were 3 months removed, the mood in the company was still pretty sad, and it was this way all over the city. The site at Ground Zero was still mostly rubble, and the surrounding blocks were not yet cleared away enough for a return to daily life. It was hard to get into the holiday spirit.
Our firm had always been a fun place to work, our office vibe was pretty loose and we always maintained quality of work/life balance long before such a thing became trendy. Everyone got on really well and there was definitely a family feel to the company in those days. It was not uncommon for the office to close a little early on a random day and for the employees to meet out somewhere for dinner drinks and good conversation. We celebrated birthdays, baby showers, promotions, Fridays.
Being a fun bunch of people, the event that was looked forward to more than any all year was the annual office holiday party. We always went all out with the decorations, fancy food and drink, and the 'Secret Santa'. And best of all, management was very generous when it came to holiday bonuses. Our bonuses were certainly not of the oft reported (and embarrassingly so) Wall Street variety that could finance a small war (we were after all, just a small non profit at the time). Still, they were, even by our company's revenues standards, pretty nice.
But this year things were different. Aside from the overall malaise from the attacks, our business suffered an almost 2 month lack of any new business. The bonuses were not going to be anything like they were in the past. In fact, we toyed with the idea of not having any at all. But in the end we decided we would give them even if we had to borrow the money to do so. They were just going to be a little light this year. Even a smaller bonus is better than no bonus.
We scheduled a meeting the 2nd week of December to announce the date of the holiday party and to give the news that the bonuses would not be what people were used to receiving. During the meeting I addressed my company and gave the bad news myself. I felt pretty lousy having to tell people I cared about deeply they were going to be shortchanged this year. And of course I expected some push-back, disappointment, and even protest. It would be understandable. After all people come to rely on end of year bonuses as part of their annual salary.
And protest they did. But not in the way I expected it;
Every employee, without exception, voted to donate his or her bonus to charity.
At the holiday party (which was very toned down) I never saw a happier bunch of people. We still did our Secret Santa. Gag gifts abounded (I was given a paint by numbers book and the ugliest tie you ever saw). We ate, we drank, we danced and we sang. But mostly we rejoiced. We rejoiced in being a part of the true 'spirit of Christmas'. The spirit that says 'it's better to give than to receive'. The spirit that says 'somewhere out there someone has it a lot worse than we do'. The spirit that says 'we haven't forgotten you. And we never will'.
Neither will I.