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Asking for a bonus

Q: I have an unusual question regarding how or if I should ask for my bonus. I work in the publishing industry and have in my contract a 30 percent bonus "at the president's discretion."  I also make a fairly high base salary in relation to my peers.

Like many industries, our company has had some cutbacks, but I've been very sucessful, being responsible for about 250 percent growth in the past two years. In 2008, no bonuses were given at all, despite my great year personally. I had another great year in 2009, but there has been no mention of bonuses.

I feel I'm entitled to this bonus, but am reticent to ask for it because I worry it may place unnecessary attention on my high base salary and could put me in jeopardy for cuts if they're needed later in the year. I really would like that bonus, but don't know what I should do...any advice?

A: First, my congratulations on a very successful year! It sounds like you have done a great job supporting the growth of the company. Especially since 2009 was a challenging year for many companies.

I talked to a compensation expert in the Boston area and we developed the following approach:

Begin, by dusting off your contract with the "30 oercent bonus at the president's discretion" and share it with the President as a reminder of this written commitment. At the same time, be prepared to show data that supports your case that you have been very successful. Cite specific revenue or sales attainments, customer success stories, costs savings or process improvements. The more specific you can be, the better. Sometimes you have to remind others of your achievements. Be certain to capture the whole year, not just those achievement that have occurred in the recent last few months.

You also say that you "make a fairly high base salary in relation to your peers." Perhaps that is because you have a higher level of skill, advanced experience or have been a consistently high performer. Your base salary is intended to be your rate of pay for the skills you have and the work you perform on a daily basis. Your bonus is intended to be variable compensation, and will vary from year to year based on company and individual performance. That being said, you should ask the President questions like:

- How did the company perform in 2009?
- Does the company performance combined with my performance warrant a 2009 bonus?

Consider asking these specific questions and based on the responses, determine whether your requests can be justified. Even if your company didn't meet 100 percent of its objectives, there may be a way that you could receive a partial bonus based on your success over the last year.

For 2010, you may want to think about how you can avoid this situation again. I would suggest presenting some goals to the President for 2010. These goals would be the basis for determining your bonus at the end of 2010. Document 3 to 5 goals or performance metrics that you plan to achieve in 2010; be specific - what will be achieved, when it will be achieved and how it will be achieved. At the end of 2010, attainment against these predetermined goals would be assessed and the bonus payout determined at that time. The intent is to avoid alot of the discretion at the end of the year and you can focus on meeting your 2010 goals.

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