Here’s a late addition to my April 20 post about new words from the world of work.
I first encountered perk-cession about a week ago in a jokey Instagram reel:
But this portmanteau of perk and recession, spelled either with a hyphen or closed up, had already been circulating for a couple of months. The Wall Street Journal may have been first to use it in print, in an article dated March 8, 2023, “The Perk-Cession Is Under Way at Some Companies.” Subhed: “Big companies from Silicon Valley to Wall Street are scaling back the office extras many employees have come to expect”:
The ping-pong tables have turned.
Companies are cutting back on prized employee perks from fancy coffee to free cab rides as they vow to trim costs and prioritize efficiency. These extras, above and beyond traditional healthcare and retirement plans, were meant to make workers want to join companies and stay there. They’ve grown to be seen by some as a form of compensation, so the cuts can sting.
The cuts sometimes run alongside layoffs. Before Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. laid off 11,000 workers, it ended free laundry and dry cleaning services for employees. Twilio Inc., which has had two rounds of job cuts in five months, slashed its employee allowances for spending on wellness and books. Salesforce, which is cutting 10% of global staff, is also dialing back a bevy of coveted benefits. Specialty-coffee baristas at the company’s San Francisco tower were shown the door. The company cut ties with Trailblazer Ranch, a 75-acre wellness retreat that mixed skills training with yoga and hiking. Also gone: the extra paid day off every month Salesforce gave employees for well-being.
Reporter Anne Marie Chaker quotes a professor of organizational behavior who said the loss of perks creates “a feeling of anger, even pain.” But she follows that quote with one from an employee at Twilio: “I would rather have the perk eliminated and for me to keep my job.” (Twilio “provides programmable communication tools for making and receiving phone calls, sending and receiving text messages, and performing other communication functions using its web service APIs.”)
Big tech is entering a “perk-cession” pic.twitter.com/gbQ0vxXbbt— Morning Brew Daily (@mbdailyshow) April 5, 2023
Across the pond, Stefan Stern, author of Myths of Management, wrote in a Guardian op-ed: “The perk-cession is here. You lose free food and laundry, but could you have a more satisfying life?”
Managing talented people was already a challenge. But in a hybrid world greater skill and sensitivity will be needed to make sure everyone can do their best work. Extrinsic motivators – “carrots” – will not do. The organisational anthropologist John Curran suggests it might be necessary to “wipe the slate clean”, get rid of ultimately meaningless perks and concentrate instead on our working relationships and the workplace culture we build together. Management just got a bit harder.
To which a reader responded: “Good. Perk culture was always about trying to convince staff to stay in the office, unremunerated, way past what was safe or healthy, at some of the wealthiest corporations on the planet. Kill it and pay your staff what they’re worth instead.”
That sounds like a good idea to me.
I left the salaried workforce before the era of Big Perk; when I worked in offices, our idea of a perk was for someone to remember to refill the water cooler. Sometimes there was coffee (usually lukewarm). I remember the first time, probably in the late 1990s, that I had a freelance gig that took me into a Silicon Valley office with perks galore: foosball, a wall of snacks, a hot catered buffet for lunch and dinner. Someone—I wish I could remember who—described scenes like that as “daycare for grownups,” and I had to agree.
Perk, by the way, is a truncation of perquisite, which entered English from Latin—“a thing acquired or granted”—in the 1400s. Since around 1567, perquisite has meant “any casual profit, fee, remuneration, etc., attached to an office or position in addition to the normal salary or revenue,” as the OED puts it. The “perk” abbreviation started appearing in truncated form around 1869 in the UK. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to determine when it migrated to the US; I’m pretty sure it was within my own lifetime. (When I started working, I would have used the term “fringe benefit” rather than “perk.”) Anyone out there able to trace perk’s procession?