A reader writes:
I am only a few years out of school, working my first long-term job. I’ve recently been doing some above-and-beyond work for my employer, and a senior coworker mentioned that this sort of work is often rewarded with a bonus. I’ve never received a bonus before, and I’m hoping you would be willing to discuss a little Bonus Etiquette 101.
Am I expected to write a thank-you note for the bonus, or is an in-person thank-you enough? Am I allowed/expected to discuss it with coworkers, or is it taboo like salary? If I accept the bonus, does that mean this work won’t be considered for my next raise? Bonuses aren’t supposed to be negotiated like salaries, are they? For what it’s worth, bonuses aren’t discussed in our HR documents, so I don’t think my company has any official policy on bonuses.
There’s some variety in how employers handle bonuses, but in general here’s how they work:
* You do not need to write a thank-you note. (Remember, the idea is that you’ve earned the bonus; it’s not a favor or a gift.) However, you should thank your boss in-person for recognizing the work you did. A thank-you is good so that you don’t come across as if you’re unmoved by it or that you take it as par for the course; show you appreciate it, and you’re more likely to keep getting them.
* There are some offices where it’s normal to discuss bonuses with others, but plenty where it’s absolutely not. Err on the side of assuming that you shouldn’t, unless you see otherwise in your workplace (although even then, I still wouldn’t go around talking about it, but I’m private about that stuff).
* Generally speaking, work that earned you a bonus should still be considered for your next raise — in that it contributes to an overall picture of how you’re doing. Keep in mind that raises aren’t generally tit for tat — “you did project X and Y so we’re giving you a $5,000 raise” — but rather about your performance as a whole. Bonuses are more often linked to specific performance measures (“you wildly exceeded your sales goal”) or events (“you spent three months working crazy hours to make sure our conference was a success”).
* You don’t typically negotiate a bonus, unless it’s part of the overall compensation structure that you’re negotiating as part of a job offer. A bonus is generally a way of saying, “Hey, you’re doing a really great job.” If I gave someone a bonus and they tried to negotiate it, I’d be really turned off — don’t do that. (It’s fine to negotiate your salary itself though, at whatever point that discussion happens.)
By the way, for your own happiness and job satisfaction, don’t assume you’re getting a bonus simply based on what your coworker said. She might not be right, and if you start expecting it, you risk being disappointed or even resentful if you don’t. So don’t get too focused on getting this, and let it be a nice surprise if it happens.