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Blog  »  July 2023  »  Bonuses 101: A Guide to Managing Bonuses - Blog
Jul 23

Posted by
Charlotte McArdle

Bonuses 101: A Guide to Managing Bonuses

Many employers routinely consider the award of bonuses to their staff at this time of year and inevitably this leads to disputes with some staff members about the failure to award a bonus to them at all or at a particular level. In this blog, we set out some factors of which employers should be mindful when making bonus-related decisions.

Entitlement to a bonus

The contractual status of a bonus is a significant factor to consider. Generally, offer letters and employment contracts outline eligibility to earn a bonus without explicitly guaranteeing it. They often state that the bonus scheme's operation and the amount awarded are solely at the employer's discretion. Bonuses are typically contingent upon the employer's business performance, the employee's work performance, or a combination of both during the previous year.

Even if bonuses are described as discretionary, there might still be a contractual entitlement to them implied in the employment contract. This could happen when an employee consistently receives a bonus at a particular level over an extended period due to custom and practice. If a contractual entitlement exists and the employer fails to pay the bonus, it could lead to a breach of contract claim or a complaint about an unlawful deduction from wages. It may also contribute to a constructive dismissal claim. In some cases, bonuses might be factored into loss of earnings awards in unfair or constructive dismissal cases.

The entitlement to a bonus may be contingent upon the employee remaining employed (and not serving notice) at the time of the award and not facing any performance or disciplinary issues. However, in instances where no express condition exists, courts have rejected implying such terms.

Employers should be aware that even if they have the discretion to terminate a bonus scheme, they cannot withhold bonuses that employees have already earned and accrued under the scheme as it was at the time. This means that once employees meet the conditions for earning the bonus, they have a right to receive it.

Exercising discretion to award a bonus

Bonuses are typically evaluated based on objective individual and/or business performance criteria. Employers must clearly define the criteria and decision-makers responsible for awarding bonuses at specific levels. Bonuses may come in various forms, including stock options, subject to the scheme's terms. However, caution should be exercised to avoid conditions that could be seen as a restraint of trade or penalty clause, as these might be deemed void due to public policy considerations.

In cases where bonuses are discretionary, employers cannot exercise their discretion arbitrarily or unfairly. The decision-making process must be carried out in good faith, consistently, and in line with the implied duty of trust and confidence. While equality laws do not require identical treatment of employees, employers should be especially cautious not to discriminate based on any protected characteristics. Ensuring fairness and transparency in bonus allocation fosters a positive work environment and reinforces the employer-employee relationship. Employers should be mindful to avoid any discrimination amongst employees based on any protected ground(s):

  • Gender
  • Marital status
  • Family status
  • Age
  • Disability
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Member of the Traveller community

Employees on leave

Care should be taken regarding employees absent on sick leave during the performance year.

The general principle in relation to maternity leave is that where a bonus comprises payment for work done, an employer is entitled to make a pro rata reduction in the bonus award for an employee’s absence on leave. However in many cases, there is scope for dispute about whether bonuses are in respect of work done. This area can be fraught with risk, and close consideration should be paid to whether a bonus is expressed to relate to company performance only or in combination with individual employee performance.



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