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Here's Your Watch, Fred

A colleague of mine is retiring, and we're having a little get together in a few days to honor the occasion. He'll probably feel obligated to say a few words. And that got me thinking of what I might say when it comes my turn. (If any of my supervisors happen to read this, note that I COULD continue to work for another seven or eight years, but, with the proper incentive, I might be inclined to leave sooner.)

As you may know, I work for a community college in Canada. My official designation is "Professor", but I feel that is a bit presumptuous for someone who has just a pass B.A. I sort of "fell into" this career. If I had been born ten years later, I probably would have pursued something related to computers. If I were just starting out now, I'd be looking for something connected to the Internet. But way back then (seems like yesterday), we had barely heard of computers. Computers took up a whole room and spit out punched cards a la The Man from the Diner's Club.

Anyway, I became a teacher. First I worked with new immigrants teaching them basic English skills. Then I worked with adults who were returning to school to upgrade their skills in mathematics and English up to a grade 12 level. Later, I also started teaching these students basic computer skills.

The main "perk" of this job is the lengthy vacation we enjoy. In our particular situation, we usually did get to enjoy most of the vacation. (Most other teachers need to take courses during a good part of their "vacation" time.) The pay was acceptable. The working conditions were at least clean (mostly) and indoors. It hasn't been a bad job, and I and my colleages have been luckier than most. Still, it's not all a bed of roses.

Before the union, everyone could negotiate his or her own salary. Pay was not based on your worth, just how good a negotiator you were. After the union, everyone with the same qualifications and seniority got the same pay. Again, pay was not based on your worth, just how good the union negotiators were. Perhaps the most unfulfilling aspect of my college career is the lack of recognition and the consequent lack of incentive. In the "real" world, there is always a chance for promotion and a chance of earning a bonus or otherwise being rewarded for a job well done. There is certainly no guarantee, and many deserving employees go unrecognized, but there is, at least, a chance. In an educational institution there is very little chance of "advancement". In some cases, getting a "promotion" could mean taking a cut in pay, shorter vacations or other disincentives. And, of course, there is always the curse of middle managers everywhere: first to be blamed, last to be praised, and first to be fired. So how about incentives or recognition?

In recognition of my ten years at the College, I received a plastic paperweight. Oh, it looked nice, with the college crest and all, but it was a paperweight. A useless object given to recognize a "useless" employee. Let's say the paperweight set the college back $10. At the time (and even today) an envelope with $10 in it would have been more appreciated. The $10 would have, of course, been long spent, whereas the paperweight I still have, somewhere. Every time I come across it, it is a reminder of just how valuable the college considers us to be. Why not give us something of value? Even a $10 coupon from a bookstore would have been far more appropriate.

After twenty-five years with the college, an employee can look forward to real recognition. I was one of the last to be treated to a nice dinner (and to have the afternoon off of classes). Now, new inductees don't even get a lunch. Along with the lunch we were supposed to get a gold watch. Somewhere I heard that the watch was worth about $300, so I'll use that amount. First of all, in my tradition, a gold watch is the ultimate symbol of an employer's disdain for an employee. It is, in effect, the ultimate slap in the face. It always reminds me of the country song with the lyrics "Here's your watch, John" (I can't remember the title at the moment.)

From about 1985 to 1997 (which includes the timeframe when I would have received my gold watch), I didn't wear a wrist watch; didn't carry a time piece at all. (At first I had a calculator with a clock, but that didn't stay with me for too long.) I got along just fine without a watch. However, in late 1997 (I think), I saw an interesting watch (actually it was the watch band that attracted my attention) and I plunked down $10, $15 or perhaps as much as $20 for it. I am still wearing it. [Update: In Summer, 2000, it stopped working. I treated myself and bought a Timex Indiglo with the iControl circle around the crystal for less than $50. It's been years since I paid that much for a watch. But it looks sporty and is far more useful than the gold one.] I had and have no use for a $300 watch. If I need a watch, I'll pay $10 or $20 and buy one. When it stops working, I'll buy another. If my $300 watch stops working, I'll feel obligated to get it repaired. (My friend's watch has been sent for repairs at least twice.) Obviously, I'm not "into" jewellry. So I not only feel slighted because the watch is a symbol of managment's disdain, but also because it is a "useless" gift. Wasting $300 on an item with (to me) a value of about $20 is another insult. Again, I would have been far more appreciative of $300 (or whatever) in cash, or a savings bond, or a stock, or a gift certificate. At least I could have purchased something that was of significant value (and use) to me. (Or I could have just paid off a credit card bill.)

You've probably figured out that I declined the watch. Actually, I asked them to donate the equivalent amount to a charity. I don't think they did. Certainly, they never gave me any credit for such a donation.

Now some of you are probably thinking that I should be delighted to get a gold watch in celebration of my twenty-five years with the college. Certainly some of my colleagues were. Maybe I should have appreciated receiving something that I would never buy for myself. Even if I had half of Bill Gates' money I wouldn't spend $300 on a simple watch. (Now a watch that was actually a minature computer with a cell phone built in and ... would be another story.) But I can't. Maybe I would have felt better if it were a gold tie clip (I virtually never wear ties), or a ring or almost anything other than a watch. Certainly, some of the stigma attached to a "gold watch" would have disappeared, but it still would be an overpriced and somewhat "useless" gift. I would have much preferred the cash - or at least a gift certificate so I could buy something I could appreciate. I know, you can't engrave cash or a gift certificate.

There is one other form of recognition that the college provides for deserving employees. A teacher or a member of the staff can be nominated as being an outstanding member of their group (the actual title eludes me). Now, there is quite a complicated process that must be completed before someone receives this honour. No one in our area has received it. Is it because we don't deserve it? Partially. I don't think anyone of my colleagues would be eager to undertake the work involved in filling out the application form. Of course, the real reason is that we're too busy to waste time on such frivolities, particularly when the reward, if won, is so miniscule: a coffee table book.

Who is it I hear grating their teeth and muttering something about "recognition being its own reward"? Sure it should be. That and $1.25 might get me a cup of coffee. I'm being more cynical and crass than I actually feel. Truth is, I don't much care about receiving recognition for recognition's sake. But I sure would like to get more cash for doing a superior job. Unfortunately, college teachers are essentially civil servants and getting bonuses for a job well done is reserved for the administrators.

Obviously, there are parallels to the "real" world. Most of the time the rewards go to "managers", not the people whose hard work and inspiration actually produced the outstanding achievement. It ain't fair. It ain't right. It's just the way it is.


Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.

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