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Ask the Headhunter: Should I give back my bonus if I resign?

Question: I was given my performance review not too long ago and was told I was at my salary cap. In lieu of a raise, I was given a 3 percent “bonus” that came on my last paycheck. The problem is, depending on the outcome of a job offer, I might be resigning in a few days.

I feel guilty taking a bonus that, had it been a raise, would have been spaced out over a year, so soon before leaving. Should I offer to return the bonus when and if I tender my resignation?

The new job is in a field I have desired to get back to (consulting) and has a possible (again depending on the offer) $20,000 increase in my salary. I could stay here, but feel I would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to return to a field I love with such a dramatic pay increase and career advancement.

Nick Corcodilos: You must use your own best judgment, but based on what you’ve said, I see no reason to return the 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.

Your employer may be upset if you keep the bonus and resign, but that’s life and that’s business. They chose to make it a bonus, not you. If they actually intended the bonus as some kind of compensation for your future work, then they should have defined it that way and spread the payments over the next year.

The only other issue is, are you worried about burning the bridge? If yes, then act accordingly. But, in my opinion, if they expect the bonus to be 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.”)

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. Please do not take any action on your old job until you’re absolutely sure the new job is locked down completely. 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 (See “Job offer rescinded after I quit my old job.”)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. I wish you the best.

Dear Readers: Would you return the bonus? 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 and retirement plan the same way a salary raise does?)

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