More Idiotic Corporate Penny-Pinching Measures

The company that supplies coffee but makes employees buy the milk. The one that keeps Post-it notes under lock and key. The one that tracks every time you use a paper clip …

Our Monday article on mindless corporate penny-pinching inspired dozens of readers to report on the many ways in which their corporations—large and small—manage to save very little money while destroying morale and alienating employees. Based on this avowedly nonscientific sample, Moneybox has been able to determine precisely which symbolic but generally ineffectual cost-cutting measures anger workers the most. The message to corporate bean counters is loud and clear: Whatever you do, don’t stint on office supplies (especially paper clips) and caffeine.

Lots of you complained about your company’s idiotic plan to cut costs by clamping down on the purchase and use of office supplies. J.S., a former employee of U.S. Bank, recalled that the company refused to order or pay for Post-it notes. At a very large name-brand data provider, pens and Post-its are apparently kept under lock and key. A relative of a telephone company employee reports that the gigantic firm said it “will no longer purchase supplies such as pencils, and paper, and Post-its” for the office where the employee works.

The desire to cut costs by saving or recycling paper clips aroused the most incredulity and anger. Former Bear Stearns employee B.B. recalls being given a bag of paper clips on his first day “with the explanation that the firm would never buy paperclips … This was on the direction of [legendary gazillionaire CEO] Ace Greenberg, and the company seemed almost proud of this inane cost-cutting measure.” A former Bank of America investment-banking analyst recalls that the megabank “once told its employees to use paper clips instead of staples because paper clips could be re-used to save money.” According to one correspondent, managers at a data center of a different firm were asked to “keep a listing (on a piece of paper) of each clip that we used, and the reason for the use!”

Why do efforts to save on Post-its and paper clips arouse so much derision? You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an item that is cheaper than paper clips. At Staples, a box of 100 can be had for 49 cents. And large companies that buy in bulk certainly get an even better deal. What’s more, these aren’t exactly luxury items. People generally use paper clips, Post-its, pens, and notebooks to complete corporate chores. And yet companies presume that their workers show up each morning not for the wages and the benefits but for the opportunity to stuff stacks of purple stickies and tiny coils of very low-grade steel into their bags.

You also expressed outrage at efforts to cut costs on liquids, particularly those that contain caffeine or that enhance the enjoyment of caffeinated products. A former employee at a self-described “major hip award-winning advertising agency” started sending out résumés after the firm declared that milk in the break room could be used only for coffee and tea, not for cereal. V.S., a former waitress for a large restaurant chain in Colorado, recalls that the company spitefully docked employees $2 per paycheck for the soda they drank while on shift. Two correspondents recalled how WorldCom, just as it was about to explode in a multibillion-dollar fraud and debt scandal, decided to save a few pennies by ending its free coffee service. And this java jive is still going on. An employee at a large telecom supplier reports that its once fully stocked coffee stations have replaced milk and cream with icky powdered whitener.

Such coffee cutbacks aren’t just petty, they’re self-defeating. Companies get a lot of bang for the buck by providing coffee—a legal drug that keeps employees pepped up. Workers, including this one, need caffeine to get through the day. Get up from your desk, go to the nearest coffee place, and return. Now repeat. That’s how much time a company loses by not providing company joe. On my first day on the job at Bloomberg 14 years ago, I was surprised and pleased to find not just coffee but the entire contents of a convenience store on offer, gratis. The reason? Billionaire Mike Bloomberg didn’t want people leaving the building to get coffee, cookies, or anything else they needed to keep them going on his dime.

Perhaps the most futile cost cut involves a product that frequently comes as an adjunct to coffee. With the slowdown in the housing market, Countrywide Financial Corp. is undergoing a significant round of job cuts and cost-cutting. Employees are undoubtedly upset that one in 10 of the administrative staff may lose their jobs. But they’ll really be incensed by this nugget, reported by Mortgage Wire: “One source told MW that the company has even canceled its regular practice of providing employees with free doughnuts on the last Friday of every month.”

This afternoon, I undertook an audit of my own place of employ: Slate’sNew York bureau. Office supplies? Oh, yeah. We’ve got closets filled with notebooks and pens, Post-it notes in various shapes and hues, and paper clips, glorious paper clips—a three-year supply just sitting there for the taking. Caffeine? The small coffee maker seems to be mostly ornamental. There are free bottles of water and soda on our floor, although the Diet Coke needs to be replenished. Free doughnuts? Sadly, never.