I read countless journals, papers, websites, newsletters, and blogs about business, ethics, and faith. Yet if it weren’t for the keen eyes of Jonathan, my research assistant, I’d have missed this story. It takes place in China. It is a story about an unusual act of marketplace generosity. It took place at Lenovo, the world’s second-largest PC vendor, known to many as the company who acquired IBM’s former Personal Computer Division in 2005. Here’s the upshot:
According to CNN and other news outlets, Lenovo attained a 73% increase in net profit over the previous fiscal year, and had its best fiscal year ever. The board awarded their CEO, Yang Yuanqing, $5.3 million
in bonuses for this exceptional performance. So far, nothing unusual about the story; a CEO delivers superlative results and is rewarded with a large bonus.
Many have rightly written about excessive compensation packages to CEOs and C-suite executives who are leading companies that are underperforming. Yet after Lenovo’s banner year, few would say that Yang underperformed or that his bonus was undeserved.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Instead of pocketing his well-earned bonus or spending it lavishly on some new treats for himself, Yang gave $3 million of it away to 10,000 of Lenovo’s junior level employees, which according to reports included receptionists, production line workers, and assistants. Each of those 10,000 China-based employees received a bonus of 2,000 Yuan, which equals approximately $314 USD.
I’m struck by three things. First, that Yang gave away so much of his bonus, almost 60%. No matter how the cynic might wish to explain that away (tax incentives, PR stunt, appease activists, etc.), giving away $3 million dollars of a hard-earned bonus is a rarity. After all, Yang probably had many lean years building up to this successful year. Second, I’m struck by who he have gave his bonus monies to, his employees. He could have given it to the local symphony or other worthy and socially prestigious charities. But instead he shared it with the very workers who helped him earn it. And third, I’m struck by his decision to give the $3 million just to junior level workers for whom $314 is presumably a very significant and maybe even life-changing number. Moreover, he appears to have done this on a pro rata basis and with no regard for their performance or length of tenure at the company.
Of course, I also have questions. How much do the junior level employees make normally? What percent of their annual wages is this $314 check? Should Yang also consider raising their base wages? Did he get any push back from more senior level employees who were jealous or resentful they did not get any of this bonus money? And what was the reaction of those junior level employees who felt they had performed better, worked harder, and been there longer than some of the new hires in the most menial of jobs?
I’m reminded of the story Jesus tells of the Laborers in the Vineyard. As Jesus tells it, during peak harvest season a manager goes out five different times during the day to hire new workers to help bring in the harvest before it spoils or the rains come. He promises to pay each the usual day labor wages (one denarius). At the end of the day, each worker is paid the same amount, whether they had been hired early in the morning and worked all day in the back-breaking heat, or whether they had been hired in the mid-afternoon and only worked for a few hours. The earlier workers are, not surprisingly, irritated that those who worked less were paid the same as them.
Frankly, I’m sure I’d have felt the same way, too. What about merit pay? Pay for performance?! What about length of service?!
Here’s how the Gospel of Matthew relates the end of the parable:
Grumbling, the workers who had slaved away all day in the heat said:
‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
“But the landowner answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:1-16)
Now, scholars have debated the many meanings of this parable for centuries. Some theologians interpret it literally as encouragement for business owners to err on the side of generosity in employee wages and financial matters. Perhaps that’s what inspired Yang? And others see the parable as a metaphor or allegory for God’s generosity offering salvation even to those who only late in life come to belief, reminding us that salvation cannot be earned, it is a gift from God.
Whichever way you interpret it, there can be little doubt that Yang’s choice to give his junior level workers over half of his bonus is an act of generosity. And acts of generosity, by those who have plenty to those who have little, is a core teaching shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
To be sure, Yang is not alone in being munificent with his bonus. Many CEOs I know are extremely generous with their bonuses, too, often giving to the arts, sciences, education, and their church. Many of these stories of generosity don’t make the news, as it is done privately and without fanfare. Indeed, my own research and work has been the beneficiary of such generosity.
And yet, I could not help thinking about how other companies and employees might be affected if more CEOs occasionally did what Yang did. How would it impact future performance, profits, and the company culture? Hard to say. But I can imagine it will go a long way toward increasing employee morale, engagement, loyalty, and respect for senior leadership, something any CEO would want.
Have you heard of other modern day parables like this? If so, please share below…