The Hidden World of Managers Dishing Out Perks

Nearly half of managers quietly shell out favors to mistreated employees. Can it backfire?

A longtime employee requests vacation days to attend her grandson’s graduation. The HR department declines the request, and she’s devastated. Two weeks later, her sympathetic manager tosses her extra holiday vacation time to see her grandson.

Managers around the world commonly compensate workers for perceived mistreatment by higher-ups, according to a recent study in Business Ethics Quarterly. An international team of researchers from four universities found that 49% of managers say they have “made up” for apparent wrongs committed by upper management, often repeatedly, with whatever perks are available, such as days off, bonuses, or loaned company equipment. The researchers call this “managerial robinhoodism.”

The study’s results created somewhat divided opinion among experts, with some suggesting that favors on the local level can sometimes be necessary for morale or to drive through projects. But others argue that even well-meaning behaviors can likely open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences while failing to address the underlying problem. “Does the perk really help?” asks Debra Hermann, a senior client partner and territory advisory leader for Korn Ferry. “Do the person’s coworkers really feel better? Or do they just think that now two not-fair things have happened?”

The researchers found that in most incidents (72%), managers proffered perks in response to perceived wrongdoing by senior management. Common perks include financial compensation, company gifts, extra budget for travel or socializing, or fringe benefits such as extra gear or books, all without consent from upper management. Some perks, in fact, went directly against management decisions, such as a manager who granted an employee with a raise after the company explicitly denied a raise.

Business psychologist James Bywater, a solution architect at Korn Ferry, says ample research indicates that workers appreciate consistent, fair processes. Rather than giving a perk, he suggests a “grown-up conversation” in which a manager explains the wider context of the decision, its rationale, and the pressures on the company or executive. The idea is to shift the worker’s perception from being the victim of a bad process (“they’re always out to get me”) to realizing it’s just a bad outcome. This shift from global anger to frustration at a specific, one-time, impersonal event is essential for ongoing motivation and trust, though this conversation isn’t easy. “It’s really hard work, because you have to unpack all that,” Bywater says.

If a perk must be given, managers need to closely monitor other coworkers’ perceptions, says Karen Huang, director of search assessment at Korn Ferry. For example, she says, if teammates think, “I was screwed over too but I didn’t get that extra bonus,” jealousy and resentment can brew. The dynamic quickly gets complicated as coworkers develop a range of negative perceptions that, overall, can be much more damaging than the positive impact on that one recipient. “It can really poison the sense of camaraderie,” Huang says. She suggests providing perks systematically and fairly across the board when possible, such as awarding everyone the same free meals.

Perks can also have their own unintended consequences. Bywater gives the example of sending an employee to a leadership training—that perhaps the employee doesn’t want to attend. “Really think about what is actually being achieved,” says psychologist Kari Poby, manager of search assessment at Korn Ferry. “Are you placating your people to ignore the bad behavior of more senior employees?” Often, she says, the perk makes a manager feel better about the situation. Where possible, addressing the root cause of the problem is more effective.