Work hard, get promoted, succeed in your new post, and eventually you’ll start earning the big money. This progression seems like a firmly ingrained part of the American Dream, and it’s certainly worked for a lot of people.
However, these steps aren’t absolutely necessary to fatten your bank account, as Washington Mutual CEO Alan Fishman learned back in September. When WaMu failed and was seized by government regulators, Fishman had been on the job for just 17 days. However, he was contractually guaranteed $11.6 million in cash severance on top of the $7.5 million signing bonus he got for taking the job. Basically, Fishman netted just under $20 million for 17 days of work, which is a pretty nice setup for the head of a collapsing corporation. (In Fishman’s defense, it’s tough to blame WaMu’s failure on his leadership alone; it seems highly unlikely that any CEO, however determined, could crash such a large thrift in just two weeks.)
Fishman’s not the only person to reap huge rewards for relatively little work. Here are few other well-compensated employees who didn’t have to put in too many years of service:
After co-founding Creative Artists Agency in 1975, Ovitz quickly skyrocketed through the ranks of entertainment agents until he established himself as one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. In 1995, though, he left CAA to become president of Disney. Ovitz’s tenure at Disney was stormy; he clashed with CEO Michael Eisner, who didn’t share Ovitz’s penchant for delegation. Ovitz also racked up a $6 million tab for various expenses ranging from renovating his office, buying Lakers tickets, and purchasing a BMW. It quickly became obvious that Ovitz wasn’t going to be a great fit at Eisner’s Disney, so the board terminated his contract after just 16 months. While Ovitz put in more work that Alan Fishman did at WaMu, he also received a lot more cash: a severance package of stock and cash that was worth around $100 million at the time. As Disney’s stock price rose, though, so did the value of the package; at one point Ovitz’s take might have been as much as $140 million for those 16 months of work.
Critics raved about Aaron Eckhart’s turn as Harvey Dent in this summer’s The Dark Knight, and most couldn’t help but mention that it was a marked improvement over Tommy Lee Jones’ campy portrayal of Two-Face in 1995’s Batman Forever. However, Jones wasn’t the only man to portray Dent in that run of Caped Crusader films. Billy Dee Williams had the role of Dent in Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman. Although the role was a fairly minor one in that film, Williams allegedly took the part with the understanding that he would reprise the character in a sequel in which Two-Face would be one of Batman’s antagonists. To this end he had a pay-or-play clause inserted in his contract that basically assured that if the Harvey Dent/Two-Face character appeared in a future Warner Bros. Batman film, Williams would play the role. If the director chose to cast another actor in the part, the studio would have to cough up a buyout to Williams.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened: when Tim Burton left the series’ helm, Joel Schumacher took over and wanted to cast Jones in the part. Williams received a cash buyout to not be in Batman Forever, a deal most of the principals in the critical disaster probably wish they’d been offered themselves.
When a professional baseball player signs a new deal, he’s pretty much guaranteed to pull in the cash regardless of whether or not he plays. If you want proof, just mention the name Carl Pavano to New York Yankees fans and watch as their faces contort in terror. After an early stint in Montreal and three fairly strong seasons in Florida, Pavano signed a four-year contract worth $39.95 million with the Yankees before the 2005 season. He then got injured. Frequently. The pitcher’s ill-fated tenure in the Bronx included pretty standard baseball injuries like an elbow strain and some problems with his throwing shoulder, but he also had some booboos that made Yankees fans wonder if he might be cursed, including two broken ribs in a car crash and a disabled-list trip for bruised buttocks. In all, the Yankees shelled out that $39.95 million for Pavano to make 26 starts over the four-year span. To make matters worse, on the rare occasions when Pavano was healthy he wasn’t very good at baseball. His best season with the Yankees saw him compile a 4.77 ERA and allow 1.47 baserunners per inning he pitched. Even Mike Hampton, baseball’s other pricy-but-fragile starter, has to shake his head at those numbers.
While he may not be as high profile or as well-paid as the other names on this list, McSweegan may have found the sweetest deal an average guy could find. In a coup ripped directly from one of George Costanza’s daydreams, McSweegan claimed that he did nothing for seven years while employed as a scientist at the National Institutes of Health. In 2003 McSweegan told the Washington Post that he hadn’t really been given any job responsibilities since 1996. Prior to that, he had been a researcher and program officer on Lyme disease, but he was removed from that position in 1995 for arguing with a sufferers’ support group. Although he had a title as director of the U.S.-Indo Vaccine Action Program and a list of nominal duties associated with that role, McSweegan claimed that he only carried out the tiniest of tasks like ordering coffee. In exchange, he received a salary in the neighborhood of $100,000.
When the NIH vehemently disputed McSweegan’s story that he simply went to work and did nothing all day, he maintained that he never received any assignments. McSweegan would show up, sit in his office, and read to kill time. He took up fiction writing to fill his workdays and published a pair of novels he allegedly wrote while at the office. He told CBS in an interview that he also joined a health club near work “just to sort of break up the day.”
The most amazing part of McSweegan’s story isn’t that he managed to stay employed through this seven-year period, but that he received positive performance reviews from his superiors. He wryly explained to CBS, “I guess I’m good at doing nothing.”