Bonuses: why pay ’em

Earlier this year Eric Daniels (the one-time CEO of the Lloyds Banking Group) successfully sued his ex-employer for an unpaid #bonus of £1.3 million worth of shares.  Litigation of this type outside the financial services sector is thankfully rare, but bonuses do often lead to disagreements, particularly when people leave.

I remain amazed how documentation is often drafted casually, if at all, and how bonus arrangements continue year after year with very little thought about their effectiveness.  If this rings bells for you – read on.

What are bonuses?

Bonuses have long been a part of the pay landscape, with very little evidence about their effectiveness as a motivator.

Wikipedia describes a bonus as ‘an extra payment for doing one’s job well’, and supporters will argue that they reinforce desired behaviours such as a focus on profitability or sales.

In reality, many bonuses are only loosely linked to individual performance, and critics will argue that unless there is a clear ‘line of sight’ between the objectives (levels of profitability, sales, effecting change etc.) and the contribution made by individuals, the prospect of a bonus will not influence behaviour in the job.

They are often little more than a deferred payment.

Detractors will also argue (following in a Maslow/Herzberg tradition) that it is the intrinsic value of the job that motivates, and quote numerous studies where reward comes well down the list of priorities as a motivator. For employees they can be unpredictable, often don’t count towards pay for the purposes of obtaining a mortgage, and they are usually non-pensionable.

On this latter point, care should now be taken to ensure that any bonus, regardless of what it says in the contract of employment, will be pensionable if the employee’s pension does not otherwise reach the upper earnings limit of £46,384 (2018/19). If you are offering a final salary pension scheme, you also need to check the scheme rules to ensure that they don’t require bonuses to be pensionable.

How popular are they?

The CIPD Reward Survey reveals a steady reduction in the number of employers using bonus schemes of one sort or another.  Overall 48% of employers used them (43% of SMEs) in 2017, although the decline is probably largely due to the capping of bonuses in the financial services since the 2008/9 crash.

The figures illustrated below show the decline and also that, outside of financial services (Rest of Economy), bonus payments make up about 5% of total pay compared to 20% in financial services (used with permission).

What are the different types of bonuses?

Very often bonuses are related to profitability or sales, meaning that they are only paid if the organisation can afford it, and managers can (within limits – see later comments) exercise some discretion over pay outs.

Typically, bonuses relate to individual, team or overall organisational performance (in the latter case usually profit) and can be ‘tiered’ to reflect different levels of achievement.  At one time there were tax incentives for schemes that paid all employees a bonus based on profitability, which was thought to encourage an overall focus on the purpose of the enterprise being to make a profit.

In Eric Daniel’s case some of the bonus apparently related to the successful integration of HBOS into the Lloyds Group – sometimes known as a ‘project bonus’.

Commission is a type of bonus usually contractually paid on a regular basis in relation to individual sales performance.

Bonuses are often paid in cash, but in the US, non-cash incentives such as a holiday for the top sales person, or retail vouchers play a prominent part in reward, and share options are often used for senior executives, such as in the Eric Daniels case.

What are the legal implications?

Despite the unlikelihood of litigation (outside of the financial sector), here are five tips for ensuring that things go smoothly.

1. Be clear about the the contractual/discretionary nature of the bonus.  Outside the financial services sector, contractual bonuses are rare, although they may sometimes be given when an employee joins you, and you guarantee a level of bonus for the first year.  The most common bonus arrangements reserve some level of discretion on behalf of the employer, either to award a bonus at all, or to award subject to agreed performance criteria.

2. Avoid acting in an inconsistent manner. Employee’s should be able to trust their employer, and tribunals/courts will be unsympathetic to random or perverse decision making regarding the payment of bonuses, even if discretion has been reserved in the contract.  Discretion is not unfettered.

Also, unless you reserve the right, you cannot withhold bonuses for other reasons such as the employee being subject to disciplinary action or because you cannot afford it.  In instances where substantial bonuses relate to financial performance, companies can reserve the right to clawback payments in the event of it needing to restate its accounts or discovering material wrong doing on the part of the employee.

3. Regularly review bonus schemes so that an employee can’t argue that a particular payment has become contractually binding.  Business priorities change over time, and bonuses should reflect changing priorities.  The best way to achieve this contractually is to give a right to participate in a discretionary scheme which the Board may vary from time to time.

4. Be clear about what happens on termination (the most frequent cause of arguments!).  Commonly, well drafted bonus provisions make it clear that there will be no right to a bonus if the individual has left or is under notice at the time the bonus is payable.  Note, the normal payment date may be different from the, for instance, end of the financial year to which it relates (sometimes referred to as the ‘due’ date).

There is an argument that if someone has earnt a bonus, they should be paid it, but this is a moral or motivational issue, rather than a legal one.

There is certainly the possibility of unintended consequences when it comes to this type of non-payment clause.  It can lead to ‘team moves’ where groups of employees leave together as soon as they have received their bonus, and to less effort and interest when someone is working their notice without needing to maintain performance levels previously motivated by the prospect of a bonus payment.

5. Make sure you are fair towards employees on long term leave.  This is a complex area, which some employers (although unusually) try to overcome by having an ‘active service’ clause which says that you have to be in service (i.e. not on maternity, parental, long term sick leave etc.) at the time the bonus is payable.  The law is not exactly decisive on these types of issues, but generally an employee should not have their bonus affected by being on sick leave (it could give rise to a disability discrimination claim), but it is broadly accepted that bonuses can be ‘pro rated’ for women on maternity leave (and probably men on Shared Parental Leave).  Unless you have stated it clearly in the contract, you should take advice about this.

6. Watch oral promises, they may be binding.  Whilst Tribunals accept that promises made under the influence of alcohol at the office Christmas party cannot be relied on, other promises where they are quantifiable and clearly intended to be binding will be enforceable.

You may not have the €400 million bonus pool exposure that Dresdner Kleinwort had when they were found to have orally promised that amount to employees in 2008, and then tried to rein in the promise by introducing a ‘material adverse change’ clause that had not existed before. In the SME sector agreements are often made orally, so take care.

If you currently operate a bonus system, you are unlikely to achieve much by removing it, but you might want to review it to ensure that it is fit for purpose.  You may conclude that it is merely a deferred payment, but you may also see opportunities to align it more effectively to the strategic goals of the company.

At the very least, you might want to ensure that bonus terms are clear and unambiguous.

Ken Allison | 03 October 2018 | Paradigm Partners | www.paradigmpartners.co.uk

Ken Allison is an engaging trainer and speaker who manages to make his topics, on handling employment law related people issues and other HR stuff, highly interactive, challenging, entertaining, and above all, relevant to the 21st Century executive. Ken uses his understanding of managing businesses to show managers what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘cannot do’.

Through his firm’s ‘ExecutiveHR’ service, Ken also provides telephone-based support services to businesses throughout the UK.

This blog is not a substitute for taking legal advice!

 

Is #Carrie Gracie a 21st Century Dagenham Lady?

In the same month (June 2018) as the 50th anniversary of the ‘Dagenham Ladies’ strike, the BBC gives £280,000 (according to The Telegraph) back pay to Carrie Gracie following her complaints about #equal pay.

On the same day as the #BBC publishes it’s 2018 list of top earners I take a look at what this case was really about, and what can be learnt from it.

In 1968, a strike by sewing machinists in the Ford plant in Dagenham, became a focal point that led to an intervention by the then Employment Minister, Barbara Castle.  Many credit this with leading to the Equal Pay Act 1970.

Fifty years on, we still have a national gender pay gap of 18.4% (worth noting that the BBC reported less than half the national average at 9%), we see the first publishing of gender pay gap reports by companies with more than 250 employees, and there is a major row between female presenters and BBC management.

What does the law say?

The right to equal pay is now enshrined in the Equality Act 2010 (and supported by a Statutory Code) and has the effect of incorporating into every contract of employment the right to the same terms and conditions as a comparator of the opposite sex in the same organisation providing they are doing ‘equal work’.  ‘Equal work’ means ‘the same or broadly similar’ (like work), work rated as equivalent by a job evaluation process, or, work of equal value in terms of the demands made such as the effort, skill and decision making involved.

Is it always unlawful for people to be paid differently for equal work?

No. There can be many reasons why differentials exist, the key is that they must not be to do with a gender difference.  For example, differences may exist because of past performance, length of service, geographical location, or even because of a genuine mistake.

What are the risks?

Equal pay claims are complex, and for this reason they are usually brought before a Tribunal on a collective basis by Trade Unions, or by highly paid individuals such as broadcasters. A Tribunal has the power to award up to six years back pay.

The effect of these judgements can be huge.  Currently before the courts are claims against major retailers such as Tesco, Morrisons and Asda, where employees on check-out tills are claiming equal pay on the basis of their work (largely done by women) being equal to the work in distribution warehouses (largely done by men).  In one of these (Tesco) the award may be the largest ever claim at £4billion.

Was Carrie Gracie’s case really about equal pay?

In her open letter to the BBC, Carrie Gracie says:-

“The BBC belongs to you, the licence fee payer. I believe you have a right to know that it is breaking equality law and resisting pressure for a fair and transparent pay structure.”

The BBC may have been resistant to transparency, but I’m not sure that it was breaking equality law.  Carrie claimed that two male international editors were being paid at least 50% more than the two women editors (Katya Adler is the other women whose salary has now also been adjusted according to today’s BBC 2018 top pay list).

Now, the BBC may well have had a reason for these differentials which was not to do with gender.  It could, for instance, have argued that John Sopel occupied the top international job as the Washington editor, and Jeremy Bowen effectively worked in a war zone.  In other words, there were other differences largely to do with geography or political significance.

The real reason why this case has been settled, and we may never know the detail, may be more to do with Carrie’s understanding that when she accepted the job in China, she had secured pay parity with these other male editors.   Her argument may really have been a contractual claim that she did not get what she was promised, and when the BBC published figures in 2017, all was revealed.  With some justification she may well have a case that the lack of transparency masked a wider approach which rewarded men more highly than women without justification, but the crux in her case may still be that she was promised something she did not get.

Is a promise like that, even if only verbal, enforceable?

Yes it most probably is.  An oral promise that she would be paid the same as others, particularly if it was given in the context of a recruitment discussion, could amount to a contractual undertaking.  A Court may well uphold it provided it was satisfied that the fact that it was said is not contested (the BBC admitted it), that it was clearly quantifiable, and intended to be a binding undertaking.

What can be learnt from this situation?

  • Be careful about oral promises.  They can be as equally binding as the written word.
  • Have a look at the pay differentials in your organisation.  If people are doing equal work, can the differences be explained by factors which are not due to gender differences.
  • Having an overall gender pay gap (see ACAS Guidance) may not be unlawful but may be indicative of other structural issues that need attention.  For instance, is their unconscious bias towards men when making senior appointments.  Some organisations are attempting to overcome this by banning single sex selection panels.
  • If you are nervous about employees finding out about what each other are paid, ask yourself why.  It may well be because you can’t justify it.  Worth remembering pay secrecy clauses, which were very common in the financial services sector, are now, effectively, unlawful.
  • Review how you handle issues that affect the career progression of women, such as returning from maternity leave and flexible working.

Carrie Gracie is undoubtedly passionate about the issue of equal pay.  She insisted on it when she took the job, resigned when she found out that promises had not been honoured, and is donating her back pay to the Fawcett Society (an organisation that campaigns for women’s rights).

On top of all that (I think!) she is a great journalist, but, is she a 21st Century Dagenham lady?  Yes and no!  She is clearly passionate about the same issues, but her actual circumstances were probably more about a failure to honour a contractual undertaking than they were about equal pay.

Essentially, Carrie appears to have been compensated for the failure on the part of the BBC to honour a contractual undertaking that she would be paid the same as someone else, this does not mean that the BBC was breaking equality law, as it may have been able to justify the difference in pay.

In their statement on the matter, the BBC said:-

The BBC acknowledges that Carrie was told she would be paid in line with the North America Editor when she took the role of China Editor, and she accepted the role on that understanding……..The BBC acknowledges the specific circumstances relating to Carrie’s appointment, apologises for underpaying Carrie, and has now put this right. 

Despite these specific circumstances, it has been acknowledged by others including Clare Balding, that she has been fighting the cause for all women.  With only 2 women in the top 20 earners in today’s list, there’s still quite a way to go.

 

If you have enjoyed this blog, and would like to read another recent one, go to http://bit.ly/10documentsyouneed

Ken Allison | 11th July 2018 | www.paradigmpartners.co.uk

Ken Allison is an engaging trainer and speaker who manages to make his topics, on handling employment law related people issues and other HR stuff, highly interactive, challenging, entertaining, and above all, relevant to the 21st Century executive. Ken uses his understanding of managing businesses to show managers what they ‘can do’ rather than what they ‘cannot do’.

Through his firm’s ‘ExecutiveHR’ service, Ken also provides telephone based support services to businesses throughout the UK.

This blog is not a substitute for taking legal advice!