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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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    As Justin say, this is really a request for legal advice which we can't give you. Should you have waited a little longer and not resigned until you had your bonus? Yes. Bonuses are intended as an incentive and you should never assume they will be paid to people who are on their way out the door. But you should definitely get legal advice rather than just assuming that a fancy certificate carries as much legal weight as a contract signed by both parties. Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 4:14
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    @Carson63000 reworded questions. And yes, I know they likely intended the bonus as an incentive for future results, but it is very clearly presented as a post-completion bonus for work already performed. They announce it loud and clear to those working towards it to encourage them to reach that milestone. Disclosing their full policy on the matter would create a vast shift in employees' attitudes towards it, as it is the only incentive most people have - and they don't deliver on it.
    – brichins
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 4:33
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    FWIW, it is very common to revoke bonuses for people who announce departure. Despite the usual HR rhetoric, companies see bonuses not as a performance reward but rather as a retention incentive. I almost lost a significant bonus once but I was able to get it as part of negotiating staying 6 weeks instead of only 2.
    – teego1967
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 10:35
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    You totally convinced yourself that you are right. I don't buy it. You have not said a single thing in your post that points to the company contradicting itself including its statement that the bonus is intended as a retention bonus. I am not aware of any legal or contractual requirement that the company explicitly state in its employee handbook or any other document that its bonus is intended as a retention bonus. So far as I am concerned, you just want the bonus and you'll say anything to get it.. Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 11:55
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    You're somewhat naive. No-one gets a bonus after they've resigned. Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 12:18

2 Answers 2


As the comments make clear, we are not qualified to give you legal advice, so I'll stick to non-legalities.

  1. Is it ethical or even legal for a company to revoke a promised, signed bonus when the specified conditions have been met?

If the bonus is a reward for a milestone reached, no. If it is an incentive to stick around, yes. If the fine print says it "will be paid upon completion of this milestone, conditional on being in an unterminated position" (emphasis added), yes. Look at that fancy certificate and talk to your lawyer. You at least have something in writing, so you may be able to use this in a settlement, even if does not have contractual power (and it may even do so).

  1. Would demanding payment of the promised reward, even though I'm leaving the company, burn bridges?

Uh, yes, of course, what else? You won't be able to rely on this company for any future references.

  1. Should I try to enforce payment of the bonus, or just walk away?

We can't really answer that question. It depends on the amount we are talking about, how important using this company as a future reference is, how good your legal position is and so forth.

  1. Should I alert my coworkers to this reversal, since it is not stated in the official policy?

This would really burn any remaining bridges. If you do decide to fight for this, then perhaps you might just as well tell people. However, check your employment contract first and see whether you promised not to share "sensitive information" or "company policy" unless there is a clear need-to-know. Be careful of giving the company additional legal ammunition they can use to neutralize your ammo.

The company may not even be consciously screwing you over - possibly they think they made it abundantly clear that this was an incentive bonus, not a milestone bonus. There may be differences in interpreting communications on both sides.

Bottom line: go see your lawyer, and think long and hard about whether the cash involved justifies burning bridges.

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    Even with your condition "unterminated position", I disagree and I answer no. While @brichins is — or was — at the company, his position was not (yet) terminated. Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 11:17
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    I can't imagine a reasonable and defendable explanation why a company wouldn't want a company policy to be known.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 8:27
  • @NicolasBarbulesco The term I have seen is "employed and not under notice". The exact wording will probably depend on jurisdiction. Commented Jul 7, 2017 at 9:36

Without diving into the legal aspects and assuming they might be obligated:

  1. You earned it, ask. If you don't, you might not get it.
  2. If it is a larger employer, this is just a small blip.
  3. If it is a smaller employer - or someone who owns the business and is writing the check, it might hurt them.
  4. People forgive over a period of time. (Thankfully!)

Conversely, I once was given a promotion simultaneously to me giving my notice. I didn't included it on my resume. See the parallel?

This is mostly about what behaviors you are willing to tolerate of yourself; not what others think. This is one of these judgement call things. You can leave well enough alone or not.

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    +1 for "what behaviors you are willing to tolerate of yourself; not what others think". Ultimately I do not plan to pursue legal action, which I fully believe I could win, but do plan to talk with the managers and HR during my exit interview to explain why I believe this decision (and other policies coming from the same mindset) lead to their huge turnover, so that my friends who still work here can (maybe) get better conditions.
    – brichins
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 15:21
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    @brichins - So the company has betrayed you, you consider the company’s behaviour unethical, you believe you would win a legal action, but you dont’t plan to sue the company? I don’t get it. Commented Jul 4, 2015 at 11:27
  • @NicolasBarbulesco Sounds weird, I know. But a) I have the luxury of not desperately needing the money, b) I still am supporting some of the products I built as a consultant, and setting my own rates. I'll make it back by not burning the bridge. And (most importantly) c), I'm willing to take a financial loss and a moral win, rather than create enemies in an industry/community largely driven by personal networking.
    – brichins
    Commented Jul 7, 2015 at 23:09

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