Sunday, March 25, 2007


Both you and your company have had a banner year. Your boss has told you to expect a handsome bonus for your stellar performance in the past year, and has even mentioned a figure, which you've written down. When you get your paycheck, a few weeks later, you notice that your bonus is twice the amount your boss had mentioned.

Do you say nothing and figure that your boss must have decided to give you an even better bonus than he had anticipated? Do you say nothing and figure that, even if a mistake has been made, you deserve the extra money? Do you thank your boss for the extra money? Do you tell your boss that there must be some mistake? Or do you handle the discrepancy in some other way?

Send your thoughts to or post them here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, your hometown, and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. (If your hometown newspaper doesn't carry "The Right Thing" column, please request that they do. Contact information at the New York Times Syndicate is available on the left-hand side of this blog.)

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues. Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

Not only should the recipient thank the boss for his generosity (and acknowledge surprise at the amount) because it's the right thing to do, it may also have been the boss's way of testing the employee's honesty. Knowing that they both know the amount of the bonus and are okay with it feels a whole lot cleaner than just clamming up and telling oneself, "well, I deserve it."

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, here's some thoughts about your new Sound Off questions. As far as what to do if your bonus check comes out as twice the amount the boss promised, honesty (which is what your boss expects of you) would require calling the obvious mistake to his attention. As to what to do if you found an item at a much smaller price than it was worth at a yard or garage sale, I believe it is universal practice for "let the seller beware". Part of the fun and profit (if you are also in business) in attending sales of this type is to manage to get for a small sum something that is actually worth much more than the asking price. In attending these sales, this is the going practice. I believe they call that being a "sharp" businessperson!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Number 1 is a no-brainer. You tell him, he explains, no harm no foul.

Number 2 gives your boss an opportunity to correct the mistake and not get nailed for giving an "out of the ballpark" bonus, OR, he appreciates your honesty so much he lets the bonus stand. (You become a two-time winner.)

Number 3 - You say nothing. Well, you know the potential downsides of this . . . guilt as a minimum, possible confrontation on your dishonesty (that will not go over well when next year bonuses are considered), cancellation of any bonus, possible dismissal, etc.

Take the bonus you were told about, and bask in the sun of honesty -- it will likely not be forgotten during the next bonus round, and you will feel very good about yourself. To test the latter part of this, imagine telling your son or daughter what you did when faced with this question. How do you want to feel while doing that?

But, do it for yourself first.

Jan Bohren

Anonymous said...

I find much of the content of your writings focuses on the opposite end of the spectrum of the reality that I know. It is far more likely that a bonus that has been paid would be less than promised, rather than more. And most firms have review processes that would find the mistake and back-out any overpayment without so much as a courtesy notice to the employee whose bank account would be hit with the reverse transaction.

Past columns, for example, have focused on whether it is ethical for a job applicant to downplay their experience or education to get a job, when the reality is that it is very hard for older, experienced workers to land a job, any job, and many must downplay their skills and accept lower pay just to keep a roof over their head and food on the table. Is it unethical for them to downplay their skills? Not if the pay is commensurate for the reduced skillset. It would be the employer who is getting the benefit of that transaction. The reality in this world is that very experienced workers are 50+ and a health insurance premium risk, making the job hunt excruiciating for them. Removing the "overqualified" excuse in exchange for accepting lower paying, less demanding work is more than fair to the employer as long as the employee performs the job as expected.

I live in an economically-depressed state where hundreds of thousands of people are desperate for work, and they repeatedly receive less than employers promise, not more. You obviously live in an ideal world where the individual has enough power to victimize the corporation. In 30 years of a very successful career, I have never seen that happen. I am lucky to say that I pay more in taxes than most people earn, but even in the executive ranks I routinely see employers shortchanging employees.

Regarding the "Bonus Question" at hand: this is more of an etiquette question than an ethics question. There is no way that the overpayment will go unnoticed forever. The right course of action is an email from the employee who received the bonus, to his boss, saying "Thank you for the bonus. You were even more generous than I expected, and I am genuinely appreciative." That calls attention to the sum paid, and allows the manager to investigate if warranted. It is much more likely that the boss would reply "You really went above and beyond, and I'm glad I could reward you even more than originally promised. Keep up the good work."

If you publish my response, do not publish my name. I am over 45 and don't want my employment status to suffer.

Thank you

Anonymous said...

When I was 21, I had a similar situation. I had already given my notice when the year-end bonuses were handed out. Mine was three times what it had been the previous year, and completely unexpected. When I thanked my boss, and let him know how surprised I was at the amount, he told me that the bonus was for my contributions, not what he expected in the future. He and I are still, occasionally, in touch -- and that job ended more than 30 years ago!

Anonymous said...

Thank you once again for being thought-provoking and interesting!

The resolution is identical whether the bonus is too big or too small.

You have every reason to assume the amount is correct if there is no disclosed formula:

You thank your boss for the generous bonus, "even better than you expected."

You thank your boss for the generous bonus, "but less than you expected."

A company that pays discretionary amounts assumes the risk of uncaught errors.

A company that pays by a quantifiable/published formula based on objective criteria does not run this same risk, but is not able to reward on a subjective (unquantifiable) basis.

Mary Jan Rosenak
Madison, Wisconsin

Anonymous said...

There can only be one safe move here, and that's to be honest. The alternative has too much downside to it . . . why would you risk your own integrity and reputation because of a "perceived" mistake that you did not have anything to do with? Your image certainly has to be worth more than a few thousand . . .