By Alyse Kalish
Think about the last time a checkout clerk offered you a bonus discount on an item or you came across a bonus feature in a movie. You probably felt pretty great, right?
People love the idea of bonuses because “extra” or “free” stuff is hard to pass up. It’s why we get excited as consumers, and also why they intrigue us when considering a job offer.
But bonuses come with a lot of caveats, too. Understanding how they work and why they’re provided in the workplace can help you choose between a job with poor compensation and one where you’re set financially. We’ll break ’em down so you come out feeling like a pro:
- What Is a Bonus?
- Why Do Companies Provide Bonuses?
- What Types of Bonuses Are There, and How Do They Work?
- Are Bonuses a Guaranteed Thing?
- Can Bonuses Be Negotiated?
- How Can I Ensure I’ll Receive a Fair Bonus?
1. What Is a Bonus?
A bonus is “a form of compensation that’s not guaranteed and that is usually paid after the completion of a certain event,” says Adi Dehejia, The Muse’s Chief Financial Officer.
Bonuses come in many shapes and sizes (all of which we’ll explain later), but generally speaking they’re performance-based, meaning a company distributes them based on how an employee or group of employees contributes to team or company goals—typically revenue-based ones.
That said, a lot of bonuses are discretionary, meaning rather than the bonus being tied to a specific quota, your level, or your performance, a manager simply gets to decide who is and isn’t worthy of one, as well as how much the bonus is.
As you can imagine, this makes bonuses a pretty complicated subject for companies and employees alike.
2. Why Do Companies Provide Bonuses?
Often bonuses are provided because that’s what the market tells companies to do. If other organizations of similar size, industry, or geography are offering their employees bonuses, a company may feel obligated to do the same to compete for good talent. This is why you’ll rarely find a sales role without a bonus structure.
They also want to hire people who they know are going to perform, and when there’s a reward for output you’ll attract a certain kind of person.
But the main reason employers are drawn to bonuses is because they encourage employees to work hard to help the company succeed. “They want to align incentives—like, ‘You do well if the company does well,’” says Dehejia. And it tends to pay off—people who know they can make more money by bringing in more revenue, whether directly (like sales) or indirectly (like marketing or executive leadership) are going to be highly motivated to do so.
“They’re trying to share the risk between the company and the individual,” adds Dehejia. When a company does poorly because of poor performance, the employee pays the price with lower compensation—as opposed to someone with no bonus structure who gets paid the exact same way no matter how well the company does.
Some people may find this concept stressful. But the flip side—having a yearly salary without a bonus—means there will be times where you work extra hard and aren’t compensated for that work. It’s a trade-off, and one certain people are willing to make.
Dehejia notes that bonuses are never meant to be the sole driver of employee retention and motivation. Compensation is one means to drive performance, but “it doesn’t substitute for management, [and] it doesn’t substitute for praise, learning and development, training, [and] opportunities,” he says. That’s why companies should always be thinking about the value of their bonus plans and balancing them with other perks and benefits.
3. What Types of Bonuses Are There, and How Do They Work?
Some bonuses are distributed quarterly, others yearly. Some are a one-time thing, others are recurring. It all depends on what role you’re in, what level you’re at, what you contribute, what your leadership is like, and what kind of company you work for (among many other things).
An annual bonus is usually based on overall company performance. So you may get a large or small bonus (or no bonus at all) depending on how successful your organization or specific department was that year, as well as how big a part of that success you were. This can also be considered “profit sharing.”
The reason companies wait a full year before paying you is simply because it means you have to stick around longer—which is why very few people leave their jobs before collecting their yearly bonus. It’s also, again, tied to company goals, so they want to ensure they’re driving performance for all 12 months, not just a chunk of the year.
A spot bonus is for people who go above and beyond and is “usually tied to a task that was outside the scope of your role,” says Dehejia. If, for example, you helped out with a special project, worked extra hours, or played an integral part in the company’s success in an unexpected way, your manager can use their discretion to offer you some additional compensation. It’s normally a one-time thing, if not an occasional occurrence depending on budgeting, priorities, and your leadership.
A signing bonus is a one-time bonus provided when you sign on to a new role. Companies might offer it when an employee is walking away from something better, or if the employee is moving to a new city for the job and the company wants to cover some of the costs (this could also be in the form of a relocation bonus or package). It’s also a way for employers to make up for salary demands they can’t meet. Basically, it’s to incentivize candidates to accept the job.
“And then generally speaking there’s a clause in your employment contract…which says that if you leave before a certain amount of time, typically a year, you owe the money back to the company,” says Dehejia. Unfortunately, it’s hard for companies to enforce this. The risk that companies take is hoping that the bonus actually gets you over the first-year hump and encourages you to stay on longer.
A retention bonus, similar to a signing bonus, is about retaining valuable talent. It’s typically provided during an acquisition, merger, or big company restructuring to convince someone to stick around for an extra period of time, if they were looking to leave or have a competing offer elsewhere.
“Retention bonuses are really paid on the backend,” explains Dehejia, meaning you don’t get it until the time period is up.
A referral bonus is meant to encourage current employees to refer great candidates for jobs at their company. It’s typically not given until the candidate is hired and has stayed on for several months.
The bonus itself, Dehejia says, has to “be interesting enough that you actually refer someone,” so it’s usually a good amount of money depending on the job and level—anywhere from $1,000 to several thousand. “Sometimes they just do [a] flat [rate] for every role, some companies do a higher amount for roles that are harder to fill,” he adds.
Also known as a “13-month salary” or “Christmas bonus,” a holiday bonus is another way to recognize employees for a hard year’s work, and to give them an extra boost during an especially expensive time of year. It’s a lot more common for companies based outside the U.S. It’s often—but not always—a set percentage of your annual salary, say anywhere from 5% to 10%.
Like bonuses, a commission is considered “non-guaranteed compensation,” but legally they’re often defined separately, and they work slightly differently.
Commission is about individual performance. Tons of jobs work under a commission structure (like sales, account management, real estate, finance, and recruiting, to name a few) and payment can be distributed monthly, quarterly, or yearly, depending on the plan and when commission is considered “earned.” (For example, “earned” may be defined as when a client signs a contract, meaning that the employee who sold the deal won’t get their commission until a signature is collected and the deal is verified.)
Commission can be a set percentage—say, a recruiter gets an amount equal to 15-20% of their hire’s first-year salary—or can be defined by a formula, the idea being that everyone at the exact same level has the same formula. This makes it easy for companies both to measure success and hand out compensation and avoid being accused of favoritism.
Your commission is generally tied to a quota or goal, which can be a dollar amount, an amount of items sold, or an amount of closed deals or booked meetings. The idea is that if you get to 100% of your quota, you’ll earn 100% of your commission.
4. So Are Bonuses a Guaranteed Thing?
The short answer is no. Most bonuses are discretionary and an addition to someone’s salary, making it practically impossible to force companies to provide them. And there’s no real federal law that states you have a right to a bonus.
If employment is at-will this means a company can fire you without cause or compensation. “So unless you have a written contract, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get anything. As long as [the bonus is] discretionary, they can do whatever they want,” says employment attorney Brian Heller, a partner at Schwartz Perry & Heller, LLP.
Commission does sometimes fall under the category of mandatory compensation. New York State Labor Law, for example, states that any “earned” commission is “legally considered wages and must be paid to the salesperson,” even if that person is fired, laid off, or leaves a job.
But allowing companies to define what “earned” means gives them a lot of leeway. “There [are] a lot of bonuses that say you have to be working for the company when the bonus is issued in order to get it,” says Heller. So if you’re terminated (or leave) before your bonus or commission is paid out, you may not technically be entitled to it, even though you feel you’ve rightfully earned it.
And there’s nothing stopping companies who do provide bonuses from divvying them up unequally amongst employees. “Favoritism is not against the law, unless it’s based on some type of discrimination,” Heller adds.
5. Can Bonuses Be Negotiated?
If you truly believe you deserve more, it’s worth negotiating in some way. This is the case for salary as well as bonuses.
Chelsea Williams, a Muse career coach and Founder and CEO of College Code, advises that bonuses be negotiated “before a formal contract is shared”—a.k.a., before you’ve agreed to or signed anything—and that you should “go into the conversation with a clear target—of course this target should be higher than what you truly are hoping to receive.”
Theresa Merrill, a salary strategist and interview coach on The Muse, worked with a client who would have ended up with a gap between jobs based on their offered start date. “[We] asked for a signing bonus to cover that period of time. First, we asked for an increase in the salary and commission. I always advise clients to negotiate that first. But if you can’t move them on that, then go for the signing bonus. Companies would rather pay that than increase the salary,” she says.
And she argues, don’t just settle for the first offer you get if it doesn’t seem like enough. “If they offer 8K, ask for 10K. Most job seekers get so excited when a signing bonus is extended, they forget to do that.”
She outlines several times when you have the upper hand and thus it’s worth negotiating for a signing bonus:
- When you have multiple companies interested in you—whether you have official offers or have moved on to the second or third round of interviews. “I had a client who was trying to negotiate an offer and the recruiter asked, ‘Do you have other interested parties? That’s something I can go back to the company and present as a reason to up your salary,’” she explains.
- When the recruiter or hiring manager is the one who pursued you first
- When you’re leaving an established company to join a startup
- When you’re moving to another city
- When you’re accepting a salary that’s less than what you were making previously
Doing your research and having proof is key. “In all cases, strong performance both on behalf of the company and individual are necessary for effective negotiation,” says Williams. You can ask for a certain number, but if you’re not a high achiever with tangible evidence of your accomplishments or they’re clearly not bringing in a lot of money as a company, you’re not going to make them budge. And you should also understand market trends and what others are making in your position to fully back up your claims (these salary calculators can help with gathering the facts).
But the best way to be successful is to simply be confident in your approach. Merrill suggests using phrases such as “I will sign the offer letter today if you can add a $X signing bonus” or “I’m looking at a comparable role where the salary is X% greater. How can you close that gap?” Again, there’s no guarantee it’ll work, but if you walk in as someone who’s well-informed and self-assured, you’re more likely to get what you want.
6. How Can I Ensure I’ll Receive a Fair Bonus?
Any time you consider accepting a job it’s important to read the fine print and ask thoughtful questions. This especially applies to roles where there’s a bonus structure. As we’ve explained, nothing is a guarantee, so when a bonus makes up the bulk of your income you should know your stuff going in.
Understand how you’re going to be paid. If you’re in an interview, you can ask questions like, “What is the bonus structure for this role?” or “How do bonuses work here?” They may not provide you with an exact number (often because it’s dependent on so many factors), but even a range of pay or idea of how they think about bonuses can be helpful in understanding how they value their employees.
One thing to note is that you should never be having the conversation around money until you’re in the final round of interviews. And don’t just take the interviewer’s word for it—lean on your network to get a sense of what people in similar roles are being paid and whether or not this offer holds up.
Another thing to remember is that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. If, for example, a company is touting an unusually large bonus, there could be a ton of hidden factors: Your quota to reach it could be unattainable, the bonus could be highly dependent on the company’s performance, or the bonus could be a cover-up for the company paying you much less in base salary.
Also, weigh the pros and cons of the bonus itself and if there are better opportunities available to you. A signing bonus may seem like a lot of money up front, but consider if you were to negotiate a higher salary (or pursue another role with no signing bonus), you might make more in the long run.
Speaking of the long term, understand what accepting a bonus means for your salary trajectory. If your base salary is fairly low (with a bonus making up the bulk of your income), that could affect how you negotiate your compensation down the road, whether you pursue another opportunity in your field or change careers. So always consider first whether you can increase your base rather than your bonus to set yourself up for a better financial situation moving forward.
If a bonus seems reasonable, get it in writing—either through a formal contract or an informal email—and make sure you read all the details and fully comprehend what achieving that bonus means.
“You can’t take any promises at face value about what you’re going to get. Unless they’re in writing, they’re generally not enforceable,” says Heller.
Always assume the worst and factor in what would happen if you didn’t receive that bonus for whatever reason. Would you still be able to pay rent? Afford groceries? Do you still have a decent base salary to work with?
This means thinking about taxes, too. Bonuses are usually considered “supplemental wages” by the IRS, which means that they’re often taxed at a higher rate than your regular paycheck (read this article for more information on how bonuses are taxed).
Finally, be willing to put in the work of being in a role where your pay heavily depends on your performance. It’s not for everyone, but plenty of people thrive off this kind of motivation—so know yourself and know exactly what responsibilities you’d be taking on before deciding.
It’s human nature to care about money. And if there’s one thing you take away from this article, it should be that understanding how your salary works—including how bonuses are involved—is so, so important.
But so many other factors—company culture, management, team goals—matter just as much in finding a job you’re willing to work hard in and an organization you’re excited to grow at. So make sure you’re looking at the whole picture when deciding your career path. You may find that the extra compensation matters a lot less than the opportunities presented to you.