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December 12, 2013

Tips for getting a better bonus

By shutterstock_124310284_feat

Ah, the end of the year — time for some traditions! Whether it’s a favorite food, getting together with friends or family, watching or participating in sporting events, or whatever your thing is this time of year, for many professionals the end of the year also means bonu$ time. Ca-Ching!

Do you pre-spend your bonus and find yourself like Clark Griswold, disappointed with a membership to the jelly of the month club instead of money for a new swimming pool? Or are you more disciplined and wait until AFTER you know the numbers to start spending? Either way, anticipating the actual amount can make you feel like you’re a kid again, forced to wait until Christmas morning to open your presents. If only there was a way to sneak under the tree and take an early peek at that bonus…

You really have two options with bonuses: You can coast along and take whatever you get, or you can find out how it works and decide you’re going to put into it what you expect to receive in return. If you’re not interested in getting into the driver’s seat when it comes to bonuses, stop reading this post and get back to work.

Still here? Good, I was hoping to share this with you. For starters, find out how bonuses work at your company. What metrics do they use to fill the bonus pool? When are your individual numbers decided? What factors influence how much you get? Do you know how your company makes money, and how to show what you do ties to the bottom line?

The textbook answers at this point are:

  • Read the company handbook.
  • Talk to people who have been through the bonus cycle. Talk to HR.
  • Talk to your manager.
  • Blah, blah, blah.

Those are all good resources and necessary background information, but those are for the default program. If you’re still reading this, you’re looking for more than default this time around. There’s really only one thing you can do to break through the default bonus ceiling: TALK TO A DECISION MAKER!

Find out who can actually make the case for you to get a bigger bonus, and what evidence they will need to justify that. Everything is negotiable, you just have to negotiate with the right person. Now, you’ve got to have a better reason than, “I want more money. Please give me more money.” Do your homework. Again, it’s all about results. What can you do or change over the year that will make a big impact for the company? You must provide evidence that what you have done — or what you plan to do — has made a difference either directly or indirectly to the success of the company. You have to add some sort of measurable value.

Let’s make this as simple as possible. Imagine a kid in a candy store. You walk up to the kid with four quarters and say, “Hey kid, I’ll give you these four quarters if you give me two in return.” Is he going to say, “No thanks, I don’t want any extra money to buy candy”? Of course not! He will keep making that deal with you all day long.

The same principle applies for your bonus. You are using your experience and the resources provided for your job to generate more than your company expects you to. You have to know how to measure your value to the company, and you need the guts to talk to a decision maker about your plan and commit to follow through. I admit that’s a lot to chew on, but not very many people take this approach, so the good news is there’s a heck of an opportunity for you to seize.

It may sound like too much work. Or maybe it’s too scary. Or perhaps you just can’t penetrate the bureaucracy. So while you’re deciding, here are some other points to consider about bonuses.

  • Most bonuses are decided months before they are paid. So those late nights and long weekends through November and December don’t matter? Not always. Sometimes your number is already in the computer in October. Know where the real finish line is so you don’t run the marathon twice. This is also important for making a case for a bigger bonus. You need to start now for next year, and have your evidence in early before things get decided.
  • The law of diminishing returns. Do you end up making half of what you usually make because you put in so much extra time chasing the bonus? Did your health suffer? What about personal time? Did you postpone vacations or skip recreation, hobbies or time with family and friends? Is there something else you could be doing on the side to yield a better return than the anticipated bonus?
  • Beware of company culture. Some places are not ok with you walking down the path, watching the bonus carrot speed by while everyone else is frantically scrambling after it. You may think, “No thanks. I don’t want a bonus. I’ll just do my normal work and go home.” But soon you’re in hot water because you’re not “keeping up” with everyone else.

Whatever you decide to do with your bonus, it’s all about communication and clear expectations on both sides. Know what you’re getting into, and if you’re going to spend the extra time, make sure it’s your decision and that you have arranged an equitable exchange for your time. Too often people sell themselves short and soon it becomes the norm for everyone to just give away their extra time. Assert your value and prove it with your results. You’ll get more cash in your own pocket and it can also improve things for others in your organization.

About the Author

is passionate about solving problems with the right tools. As a Software Consultant he loves challenging technical problems including text analytics, speech to text, and operational improvement. He also enjoys presenting, training and mentoring on both technical topics and soft skills. Craig is a contributing author in the book “Achieve – Conversations with Top Achievers” and has a Master’s degree in computer science. Contact him at

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