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Dilemma of the Month: My Company Stopped Giving Bonuses, but My Coworker Got One

Back Article Sep 10, 2021 By Suzanne Lucas

My company has given bonuses every year since I was hired in 1999 but said last year it would no longer do it due to our industry’s economic struggles. These bonuses have always been based on 10 criteria. In an average year, I’d meet eight of these and receive 8 percent of my salary. I understood the financial situation until I discovered at least one other manager, Jane, received a bonus. Is there anything I can do?

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Maybe. You said that due to industry economic struggles, the bonuses would go away. But is that what happened, or was it that the company changed the criteria or changed the bonuses to be entirely discretionary?

Economic struggles are something that many businesses faced in 2020 and into 2021. It’s not at all surprising that a company wouldn’t be able to hand out the same type of bonuses that they had in the past. And if a company were looking to make changes in the bonus structure, now would be a great time to do it. Employees (like yourself) are fully willing to accept that economics outside the company’s control made this change necessary.

So there may be bonuses still at play, it’s just that the criteria changed. Or there may be no general bonuses, but senior leadership decided to give bonuses to a select group of individuals. We could guess all day at what is going on here. Or we could ask.

Talking About Money Is Awkward

Now, I will grant you that Americans, in general, find talking about money very stressful and very taboo. Talking about money that your coworker got and you didn’t is even scarier. But that doesn’t mean you should keep quiet.

The National Labor Relations Act protects the right of employees to talk about their working conditions — which includes pay — with each other. However, that right is limited to nonmanagement employees. But the California Equal Pay Act expands that right to just about everyone. So, even as a manager, you should be able to discuss pay without fear of retaliation.

What You Can Do

Those are your rights, but here’s what you can do with this. 

First, go to your direct manager and ask the question. You can choose to be vague and say, “I didn’t receive a bonus this year. My understanding was that no one did, but then I’ve heard through the grapevine that some people did. Can you explain what happened?” 

Or you can be direct: “Jane got a bonus. I didn’t. What’s up with that?”

Keep in mind that your manager may not know. If the CEO just handpicked the favored five to receive bonuses or something, very few people may know what happened.

If your manager doesn’t know, you can escalate it. Make it clear that you’re looking for information on how Jane qualified for the bonus when you didn’t. You should not whine about how it’s unfair. It may be fair: Maybe Jane sold $10 million worth of product and single-handedly saved the company. 

And if escalating doesn’t yield answers, you can go directly to Jane. “Jane, how did you qualify for that bonus?”

Legally, You Can Talk About Pay

Of course, there’s no requirement that anyone has to tell you anything. Legally, you can talk about your pay, but no one is required to discuss their pay or anyone else’s pay with you. And plenty of people will not tell you a thing about bonuses that were paid to other people. This isn’t a bad thing — it’s none of your business. If they said that you were not entitled to a bonus this year, you’re not entitled. It doesn’t matter that someone else got one, unless the company gave bonuses unfairly.

Unfairly only means legally unfair and not ethically unfair. It’s legal for the boss to give the bonus to Jane because she’s his little sister. Nepotism isn’t illegal — just super dumb. But if the company gave women the bonus and not men, or white people and not Black people, or you didn’t get one because you were out on Family and Medical Leave Act for six weeks, then that’s illegal. And in that case, the company owes you a bonus.

Talk To Your Boss

The most likely scenario is that bonuses weren’t completely cut off, just limited to a select group of individuals. That’s an obvious thing to do in a struggling industry. The communication should have been more transparent, of course, but sometimes people are scared to tell the truth because people won’t like it. That may be true, but telling the truth is always better than letting people find out through back channels. Bonuses are difficult to keep secret, so it’s best for employers to be upfront about who receives them. Talk to your boss and see if you can find out what’s going on. Once you know, you can plan accordingly.

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