The fancy buffet was being set up in the hallway, while inside the auditorium, audiovisuals were flashing across a big screen. Providence Journal management began handing out checks totaling more than $500,000 in bonuses, the rewards for a "fantastic" 1999 for advertising sales.
But many grim-faced Guild members, seated in the audience of more than 100 in the Journal auditorium one Monday afternoon last month, applauded weakly, if at all.
When quitting time came 45 minutes into the program, some union people just got up and left. And by the time the sumptuous feast was served, others were heading for the elevators, with some electing a faster exit: four flights of stairs.
What's wrong with this picture?
You'd think half-million green ones being spread about the room, and a free meal in the art deco hallway afterwards, would warm the hearts of any "World Class" sales force.
But the opposite has happened.
The Providence Journal's annual incentive program, rather than inspiring sales persons, has discouraged them. Instead of a boosting morale, it has left many in the Guild's advertising unit feeling betrayed and let down.
The reason is that the incentive program isn't fair, in many cases.
The company-authored rules set up even the most successful salespersons for failure.
While some do land bonuses worth thousands of dollars, many more are deprived of the promised rewards, because the program contains a series of cruel tricks and Catch 22-style contradictions.
This year, the richest rewards went to non-union directors, with about $100,000 split between three non-union directors.
Meanwhile, some Guild sales persons, who had had solid sales performances, went away either empty-handed, or nearly so.
One salesperson with one of the best sales figures chose not even to apply for the richest payouts, having been bruised by the negative experience last year, when they'd expected a fair payout, but learned during the actual program that they'd been bypassed.
The Guild is offering to help fix this counterproductive program: One of the union's key contract proposals would give Guild members a voice in designing and running the program.
It's a classic win-win approach. The richer and more wide-reaching the Guild and its members can make the incentives, the more money will flow not only into the pockets of union workers, but to the company and its stockholders.
Instead, the company has steadfastly refused to let the union have an official role, preferring to blunder along with a program that does the opposite of what it's designed to do.
Here's one outrageous example of how upside-down the program is.
One set of bonuses requires that - in addition to meeting sales goals that are set by management - workers must meet six other operational targets.
One of these other targets is to accurately forecast monthly ad sales.
If sales teams have a variance of more than 5.5 percent, then they are out of the running for the big bonuses. You might think that makes sense, since achieving goals is the point of an incentive system.
But here's the astonishing catch: If sales are actually 5.5 percent or more higher than forecast, that counts against the incentive program, too. In other words, more money for the paper means that the sales team missed its forecast, and that goes down in the black book as a failure.
The point isn't lost on those familiar with the arcane rules.
"We've discussed: Let's not order the ads, so that $40,000 more won't come in," upsetting the forecasting system, one salesperson said.
Overall, the goal-setting process is flawed.
Management can set the goals arbitrarily high, so that even when sales shoot up, they miss the target, sometimes by a fraction. That means the company still gains nearly everything that it hoped for in increased ad sales, but Guild members go away with crumbs, or worse, in incentives.
Further, just as the company's horrendous mistakes in circulation hurt everyone from reporters to credit clerks, the company's mistakes in one advertising department hurts workers in others.
There are severe operational problems in the pre-publication department, where ads are assembled. It's a hardship for pre-pub union members who need training, even while the company tries to steer more complex work into lower salary categories.
As it turns out, the backups and stress in pre-pub also hurts the advertising sales force. Extra ads run as "make-good" for advertisements, which had errors because of pre-pub problems, are counted against the ad sales incentive goals.
There are plenty of routine hang-ups as well. The goals for the incentives are intended to inspire better performance. But this year, they weren't rolled out until March, more than two months into the year.
What many in advertising find discouraging is that they really had hoped that a successful program would result several years ago when the company hired a high-priced consulting firm to design a "World Class" advertising project.
The department was to be reorganized, with a major aim of allowing salespersons to spend more face-to-face time with customers. There was a promise that most people would make more money, and that the paper overall would prosper.
It hasn't worked out that way, a fact that has been partly masked by the booming New England economy, which has brought the company increased revenues despite itself.
Today, instead of striving for new sales records, union members have to worry about missing forecasts; instead of spending more time with clients, they are having to worry about correction ads; instead of going for the gold - the richest bonuses - some don't bother trying.
What's World Class about an advertising incentive award program in which almost 40 percent of the outside sales force that is eligible for the rewards doesn't even apply?
So rather than applaud at the distribution of more than a half-million dollars in the Journal auditorium, many stayed silent.
They watched the clock, walking out at the minute their work day officially ended, muttering under their breath as they left: "World Class, my _ _ _."
SUTTON DRAWING FLOWERS BRIEFLY, BUT WILTS UNDER EDITOR'S GAZE
The drawing that featured Publisher Howard Sutton, and that drew harsh punishment from Providence Journal managers against three journalists, had a brief rebirth last week.
But the reappearance was short-lived, a sign that management still hasn't regained its sense of humor, any more than it has its sense of fair play in Guild negotiations.
The drawing sprouted as the background image on desktop computers throughout the newsroom last Friday.
Apparently, it had been copied out of the news library archives, and transferred to the so-called "desktop" and "screen saver" areas of the Windows computer programs.
The image of a tearfully grateful boss clutching the gift of a Valentine from appreciative workers hadn't been seen in full color since it appeared in the paper Feb. 13.
After the published version appeared, angry managers accused the artist and editors responsible for its publication of trying to humiliate Sutton, and suggested the Guild had something to do with it - both charges denied by the journalists involved.
Nevertheless, Joel P. Rawson, executive editor, suspended a top editor for one day and issued written reprimands to two Guild members.
When Rawson saw that the cartoon had sprouted to life on the computer terminals last week, he ordered them removed. And later, one reporter who checked for the image in the archive system found that it seemed to have disappeared from there as well.
All of which brings to mind a key point of Constitutional law: that that freedom of the press is enjoyed mainly by those who own the press. Or in modern times, those who own the computers.
TNG/CWA Local 31041
270 Westmister St., Providence, Rhode Island 02903
401-421-9466 | Fax: 401-421-9495