Pardon Me, but Would You Mind Working for Free?

When I was in college, I would gladly work for free. Call it what you will (naiveté, paying my dues, idealism, boredom), but it turned out to be profoundly strategic; by the time I graduated, I had a laundry list of internships that made me poised for full-time employment.

Now, had I not been 17, 18 or 19 years old, the unpaid portion of the internship job descriptions wouldn’t have gone over so well. Imagine, then, how employees of British Airways felt when their CEO made a particularly unreasonable request: work for free for up to four weeks to help offset the company’s record annual loss of $656 million.

Everyone knows we are in the midst of the most staggering financial crisis since the Great Depression—no doubt about it. But, in a time when employees by no means expect grandeur—let alone small gestures—from senior management, compensation for their efforts is still well within the realm of reasonable expectations.

From an employee relations/morale standpoint, British Airways’ decision seems surprising—not to mention profoundly challenging to communicate. I’m assuming the rationale is that foregoing a month of pay is more palatable than being laid off altogether; plus, the execs were quick to point out that employees could opt to take unpaid leave if they preferred.

My question, then, is simple: How does this apply to the senior management team, which is surely making exponentially more per month than the average employee? Are they losing out on a month’s salary? I’d venture a guess that they could not only afford a pay cut more easily, but that a pay cut from the top would go a lot further than one that takes $50,000-a-year employees out at the knees.

Any thoughts on alternative approaches to communicating this news, or to addressing the company’s financial strife in the first place?

By Courtney Barnes