In the August 28, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader feels pangs of guilt about keeping a bonus.
When I was given my performance review they told me I was at the top end of my salary grade. Instead of a raise, I was given a 3% bonus that came on my last paycheck. Depending on the outcome of a recent job interview at another company, I might be resigning in a few days.
I feel guilty keeping a bonus that I got just before I quit! Had it been a raise, it would have been spaced out over a year. Should I offer to return the bonus when and if I tender my resignation?
The new job is in a field I have wanted to return to (consulting). I’m not counting any chickens before they hatch, but it looks good and the job offer could be as much as a $20,000 increase in my salary. I could stay here, but it would be foolish to pass up an opportunity to return to a field I love with such a dramatic pay increase and career advancement.
Should I return the bonus?
You should use your own judgment, but based on what you’ve said, I see no reason to return a performance bonus. Here’s why:
- A salary increase is prospective – it pays for future performance.
- A bonus payment is retrospective – it’s a reward for past performance. That’s why it comes as a lump sum and is not recoverable by the employer, unless they made you sign something to the contrary.
It’ll be interesting to see if they ask you to return it. I’m assuming you didn’t sign any kind of claw-back agreement that would empower the company to take the money back — or you would have said so. As long as that’s accurate…
You earned the bonus
I would not return it. Of course, your employer may be upset about that, but that’s life and that’s business. Your employer chose to make it a bonus, not you. If they actually intended the bonus as some kind of compensation for your future work — or as an incentive to stay in your job — then they should have defined it that way and spread the payments over the next year. But it seems clear you earned the bonus for performance you already delivered.
The only other issue is, are you worried about burning the bridge? If you are, then act accordingly. But, in my opinion, if they expect the bonus returned, they’re being disingenuous. Keep in mind, these are people who don’t believe you deserve a raise. They’re the ones burning the bridge to you.
I’d keep the money without a guilty conscience and move on. (For more about raises, see They promised a raise but won’t deliver.)
Be very careful
Congratulations on the new opportunity. I hope you get the offer you expect. But please keep one very important thing in mind: You don’t have the new offer yet.
Do not take any action on your old job until you’re absolutely sure the new job is locked down. I regularly see employers rescind job offers right up to the start date. (See Job offer rescinded after I quit my old job.) Be very, very careful.
Use your best judgment. If you’re truly excited about the new opportunity, take it and don’t look back. And keep that bonus. I wish you the best.
Should this reader return the bonus? Would you? What other factors might play into your decision? What does it mean when an employer declines to give you a raise but gives you a bonus instead? (Hint: Does a bonus affect your benefits the same way a salary raise does?)