MAYOR BARRY has found a clever way for his employees to share the agonies of austerity -- and what terrific timing: after arranging individual, unsolicited, surprise bonuses of up to $10,000 for his favorite top aides, Mr. Barry slipped off to a private meeting to talk about another fat surprise for an even greater number of employees. Instead of bonuses, though, the mayor was talking about shaving pay increases of 6 to 9 percent that some 30,000 unionized employees are expecting in October as part of contracts that he and the unions agreed to.

The mayor also refused even to talk about his role in these moves. The bonuses came to light only after an inquiry that had to be fielded by Mr. Barry's press secretary; as for the pay-raise cuts, the mayor declined any comment that day. This was wise, given his appearance earlier in the day at a meeting with 200 union representatives, when he reaffirmed a campaign pledge to grant workers a pay raise and not to lay off any full-time city employees.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with incentive bonuses. Many governments award them, and some have even narrowed gross gaps in the relative amounts awarded to the top aides and the rank and file. Similarly, attempts to negotiate some downward revisions of contractual pay increases are legitimate moves to economize in a time of leveling inflation and intense budget pressures on cities.

The trouble is that Mayor Barry has handled both moves badly. Tradition or not, the practice of a mayor's quietly dishing out unspecified hefty bundles of money to certain top assistants at best bears tight scrutiny. Or this could be the start of something big--and bad. To do it while promising raises --and then plotting to clip them--is to invite unnecessarily low morale in a bureaucracy that has a fair share of it already.