Tech companies, particularly startups, have adopted a cult-like atmosphere that can mask employee exploitation. One of the ways this is accomplished is by feigning an interest in employee wellness by offering “perks”. Many of the most predatory companies offer elaborate “perk packages” that entice the employee into developing an impenetrable loyalty. Home office and “personal development” allowances in the multi thousands, complimentary meals, gym memberships, spa treatments, fully expensed trips across the country, and the fabled “unlimited PTO” are all common. The last company that I worked for paid for my home internet, allotted me a DoorDash allowance, and shipped me a motorized standing desk, mechanical keyboard, and ultra-wide gaming monitor within my first month of tenure. While I was grateful for these offerings, I couldn’t help but feel trapped by them. If I were to quit, would these “gifts” be held over my head? Was I working hard enough to justify them?
The company’s greatest interest is remaining profitable. Employee retention generally leads to more profit, as turnover is an expensive affair. I do not believe that the offering of perks is erroneous, but I am concerned about the commonality of their weaponization. Employees in these environments often develop a reverence for their employer. LinkedIn is overrun with office workers singing praises to their corporate overlords for their unbridled displays of ‘selflessness’. While I may come across as thankless, I find this sort of worship disturbing in an industry where a ten hour work day is both common and celebrated.
Let’s pluck one of these perks off of the shelf for a closer inspection - “Unlimited PTO.” While some companies offer a set amount of paid time off, usually somewhere in the ballpark of fourteen days annually in the US, others claim that you can take as much as you want so long as it falls into the umbrella of “reasonable”. This sounds like an ideal set up, until you consider the manager in charge of determining what constitutes as reasonable. Most employees who are offered unlimited PTO take less time off than those who are allotted a set amount. Why?
These employees often worry about how their desire to take time off will reflect on them. They may study their colleagues, who are feeling the same discomfort, and decide to forgo vacation because everyone else has. Held captive to the grindstone by an endless showering of perks, they may wonder how cashing in on a vacation may affect their standing with such a wonderful company. They wouldn’t want to sour their reputation and have to return to a workplace where vacation is limited, so they inadvertently impose this limit on themselves. The downside is that unspent unlimited PTO is not reimbursed at the year’s end, nor does it carry over to the next. It can be quite cost effective for the company.
I recently worked for a startup whose culture revolved around “rockstar engineers”. A “rockstar” is a person who conducts entirely too much work for the pay they’re allotted. Tech companies seek out rockstars with baited breath, and perks are a means of luring them in. It was never enough to pursue the requirements of one’s current job title - giving “110%” was mandatory. “Professional Development” was a scheduled weekly requirement. Those who weren’t spending time coding up side projects in addition to their heaping basket of regular work were seen as lazy and ungrateful for the company’s “interest” in their development. I was mentally bankrupt from maintaining my regular workload, but felt that I could not speak up about these extra requirements without risking my rockstar reputation.
I spent over a year on this treadmill ever increasing the pace of my sprint. It led to a hearty promotion, and the endless praise of my superiors; until I all but flew off of the machine from exhaustion. I spent nearly eleven months without taking any vacation, a period in which I was encouraged to not take any of my “unlimited PTO” until the current project was released. The resulting burnout has led me to my current sabbatical.
Perks are not inherently bad, but they can be misused to create a feeling of guilt when employees entertain taking time off, or look for a new job. This showering of “exclusive bonuses” can entice the employee to work longer hours for no increase in pay. While these bonuses are becoming more common, they’re not necessarily standard. The threat of losing these perks can be a sort of ball and chain for employees who are unsatisfied with their jobs, but don’t want to lose offerings such as unlimited vacation. They have become a golden cage, much like the golden handcuffs of a high salary.
When job seeking, ask yourself if you’re interested in the work, or merely the perks. Perhaps the perks are truly just an icing on a delicious cake, or perhaps they’re a device to gain entry to your soul.