The joys and benefits of perks

When I was 29, I was promoted to the rank of corporate manager at Nissan. This was a very big deal because it introduced me to the exotic world of perks.

When I was 29, I was promoted to the rank of corporate manager at Nissan. This was a very big deal because it introduced me to the exotic world of perks.

I had always heard about perks, but up until that point in my career, I did not actually understand what they were - or that it was an abbreviation for "perquisite," which appropriately sounds like a pain relief medicine. Anyway, I was thrilled to be ushered into this elite world of corporate benefits, the most wonderful of which was free gas.

There were fuel pumps at Nissan's US headquarters, and anytime the tank got low, I would simply motor over to Corporate Vehicles and fill 'er up. And in case I was on the road, I was given a Chevron credit card that was billed directly to the company. Not too shabby.

One day as I was happily gassing up at the corporate pump, I had a strange thought: It didn't make any sense that free gas was being provided precisely to the people who needed it the least.

Think about it. The further you moved up the executive ladder, the more money you made, the more you could afford gas.

Not that I complained about it. On the contrary, as my corporate career progressed, I began to realize that my very questioning of the free gas perk was in itself a dangerous and subversive notion.

Apparently, the whole point of moving up the ladder is to get as much free stuff as possible, despite the fact you can better afford it than most of the employee base.

What I also began to learn was that the more money you made, the greater the value of the free stuff that is given.

What I didn't understand was how insidious these perks could be. They're a bit like addictive drugs - and the usage can become irrational.

For example, when Jack Welch left GE in 2001, he was given a retirement package that included floor-level seats for New York Knicks games, a skybox for Boston Red Sox games, New York Yankees season tickets and VIP seating at the French Open, US Open, and Wimbledon.

With his net worth at the time estimated at $720 million, it is difficult to see why those perks were necessary.

And yet I'm sure they were part of a tough negotiation.

I was recruited from Nissan to a financial services company with a billionaire founder who believed that members of management should "act like owners." Base pay was low, incentive pay was high, and there were virtually no perks. I was shocked when I was first told that if I wanted to upgrade to business class, I should "pay for it myself."

And the first time I submitted an expense report, the accounting department kicked out the one dollar charge the hotel had put on my bill for a copy of The Wall Street Journal.

There were no free sporting event tickets, the car allowance was laughable, and there was certainly no free gas.

But it was ultimately liberating to be free of the perk addiction. I have since watched candidates hurt their chances at a new job because they are overly focused on title, size of office, or the accoutrements that come with the role. It's a difficult dole to wean one's self from.

Given the choice, I would prefer more pay and less stuff. With the additional money, I can decide if I want to treat myself to a Knicks game, upgrade my flight, or offer my kids some free gas.

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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