TIME Careers & Workplace

Why ‘You’re Getting a Bonus’ Is Actually Horrible News

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Joel Sartore—Getty Images/National Geographic RF

Sounds good. Often isn't

So your boss just said, instead of a raise this year, you’ll be eligible for a bonus. Great, right?

Not so fast. Companies today are increasingly turning to bonuses instead of raises, and while it might seem like pretty much the same thing, there are some big potential drawbacks for workers.

According to HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt’s annual Salary Increase Survey, more than 90% of companies now have what’s called, in HR jargon, “variable pay,” a category that can include signing bonuses, awards for individual or team performance, profit-sharing and the like. Nearly 13% of companies’ payroll budget, on average, is going to variable pay this year. This is a significant increase from Aon Hewitt’s pre-recession data and the trend is expected not only to continue, but to grow larger.

In the meantime, companies are still doling out raises with a relative eyedropper; last year, the average was below three percent for white-collar professional workers — a little better than the puny 1.8% it hit in 2009, but not by much.

“Based on historical trends and based on the indicators that we see — both economic and HR indicators — we think the level of spending on salaries will continue to be flat for the foreseeable future, and the level of spending on variable pay will continue to rise,” says Ken Abosch, compensation, strategy and market development leader at Aon Hewitt.

While bonuses have always been a part of the pay structure for certain jobs, like those in sales, Abosch says this trend is across the board. “We’re seeing it in pretty much every sector, including higher education and not-for-profits,” he says. So if you haven’t had your raise replaced with a bonus yet, that could be coming.

For businesses, there are a few advantages to giving bonuses instead of raises in today’s lackluster recovery. The biggest is that it’s not a permanent commitment. They dole out the money once, and they only have to repeat it if certain performance benchmarks — benchmarks which can and do change regularly — are met. Since bonuses and similar performance incentives are often viewed by workers as a sort of add-on perk, they can also be used as a “carrot” to motivate workers, and they can give workers a perception that they’re more in control of how much they earn.

That perception isn’t really based in reality, though: Performance metrics often include company-wide targets. You might be the best help-desk associate or accountant in the building, but if somebody in the corner office makes a bad decision, the company’s bottom line could tank and you can kiss that bonus goodbye.

That’s only one of the problems that switching raises with bonuses has for workers. “It impacts pensions and retirements,” Abosch says. Certain benefits calculations are based on your salary, so even if you’re getting the money in the form of a bonus, it’s not counting towards these important ancillary calculations. And if you lose that job, your unemployment benefits are calculated based on — you guessed it — your salary.

That’s not all. If you’re looking to take out a mortgage, buy a car or obtain any other kind of financing, the lender is going to look at how much you make. Depending on their underwriting practices, bonuses may or may not get the same weight as a fixed salary. The result? You could wind up paying higher interest on your loan, or even be denied outright.

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