I am leaving my employer after almost 5 years for a career in a different field. I just passed a major milestone in my current field (independent licensure), and the company I am at has a standard policy to give a very specific bonus to anyone and everyone who achieves this milestone (the only bonus they give of any significant size). They even go so far as to present a signed certificate, at a company event, in front of all the employees, stating the bonus will be given on completion. They make a pretty big deal out of doing so, at least in part to show how benevolent the company is and how hard work is rewarded here.
I have have been here several years in a unique position, and it will be difficult to replace me - they will likely divide my duties among more than one new hire. Accordingly, I gave more than the standard 2 weeks notice in an effort to show good will, even though they have not shown an inclination to do any more than the minimum for their employees (we have 30-40% turnover). I was informed later that day that I would not be receiving the standard bonus - and that they considered that fair, because others who have left with similar timing were also denied the promised bonus. More specifically, they said the bonus was intended as an incentive to continue working there, not a reward for past efforts, even though there is never anything said or written to that effect in the company literature about the bonus, nor any stipulations about a waiting period or continued employment. Furthermore, they also stated that if I had received and cashed the bonus check prior to submitting my notice, they would have taken it out of my remaining pay, i.e. garnished my wages as if it were a pay advance and thus a debt to the company.
- Is it ethical or even legal for a company to revoke a promised, signed bonus when the specified conditions have been met? Obviously I believe not, but am looking for opinions from the other side of the table.
- Would demanding payment of the promised reward, even though I'm leaving the company, burn bridges? I fully intend to ask for it - I see this as being similar to meeting a sales quota and being denied the commission. In my mind, I fulfilled contract terms and they are defaulting.
- Should I try to enforce payment of the bonus, or just walk away? I likely will not attempt legal action, partly because I may want to accept work from them as an independent contractor in the future, but will likely mention that I believe a legal decision would be in my favor (and for others who recently experienced the same treatment), given the documentation they gave me.
- Should I alert my coworkers to this reversal, since it is not stated in the official policy? I doubt they would stand behind this decision in the same circumstances they presented the bonus under, but expect them to demand I not tell anyone. One of the other employees who was similarly treated when departed last month was a close friend, but didn't let me know this happened to him because they "made him promise not to say anything". I doubt they made him sign something binding, but he was very concerned about disclosing it to anyone until I brought it up. Had I known this was standard procedure, I would likely have waited another week or two for the payout, whether that gave them 2 weeks to replace me or not - I don't want any other employees to make an uninformed decisions about this in the future.
EDIT Reworded questions to make it clear I am not looking for legal advice - I already know some great lawyers. Rather, I am looking for advice on what the "right" way to handle the situation would be.
EDIT 2 Since it came up in the comments, yes, the bonus is specifically called out in the employee handbook, with the (minimal) requirements clearly outlined, and no stipulations given about revocation or paying it back if the employee departs (in any time frame).
Second, as I see this has been marked as "off-topic" for being company-specific: I have deliberately omitted as much specific detail as possible, and tried to word the question(s) around "how should I (and future employees) have expected this to be handled", as well as "what should I say to my coworkers". I have tried to make it clear that I am not at all interested in legal advice or answers about how this will affect the company - that's a separate question.
EDIT 3 During my exit interview the HR rep stated that this bonus was "contingent on staying with the company 1 year" after the bonus was awarded, and that this stipulation was "stated in the HR and team manager handbooks". However these manuals are (naturally) not available to the employees to whom the bonus applies; it is definitively presented as an achievement/performance bonus, and never as a retention bonus. My request to see the relevant handbook section(s) was denied. Even more sure now that I could obtain a judgement for the bonus if I pursued it, and that they were just making up the rules as they went, as this CYA stance was consistent with some of the other shenanigans I saw pulled during my time there.