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Opinion
Stephen Mihm

How Signing Bonuses Spread From Ancient Rome to Amazon

The tightest labor market in years is leading employers to lean on a recruiting tool that has a long history.

The Roman Empire offered a “viaticum” to military recruits worth a few gold coins. 

The Roman Empire offered a “viaticum” to military recruits worth a few gold coins. 

Photographer: Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

The signing bonus, once the province of elite athletes and corporate executives, has gone mainstream. In the tightest labor market in years, employers like Amazon are shelling out thousands of dollars up front to truck drivers, trash collectors, warehouse workers and other in-demand workers. 

It’s a recruiting tool with a long history. But signing bonuses have evolved significantly over the years, scrambling the incentives that once defined the relationship between employers and workers. That history helps explain how this tactic can work – and why it could fail desperate employers this time around.