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Accidental Disclosures

Updated: Jan 12

Dear Robin,


I’ve recently learned that my team discovered each other’s 2021 personal bonus amounts. Normally we keep these numbers private, but this year they were somehow shared. This has raised a lot of trouble on the team and I’m afraid it is causing some divisiveness. Of course, in the future we will work to keep these amounts between manager and employee. But given this unique situation, do you have any advice on how to address the team? I want to make sure they know that we respect their opinions, and their concerns are heard, but we stand by our decisions and are not going to go back and change any amounts that have already been dispersed. I also don’t want them forming grudges again other team members based on this new information. Thank you!



Answer:


Such an accidental disclosure can create tension within the team and resentment against the organization, but it’s also an opportunity.


Develop Transparent Criteria for Bonuses

For the team leader, it’s an opportunity to talk with the team as a whole about bonuses (and compensation more generally) and the decision-making process that goes into determining them: each criteria and its weight in determining the final number. Of course, this answer assumes that there are justifiable criteria that, at least to some extent, have been transparent and that are applied across the board. In other words, how bonuses are determined is a fair process and employees know what they should do to get a bigger bonus. If that hasn’t been the case, now is the time to start. You can use this accident to create clear criteria for bonus size.


Discover Reactions to the Accidental Disclosure

When meeting with team members individually, you may want to ask about their reactions to the bonus disclosure, so you can understand and address any negative feelings. For instance, some team members may think that they should have gotten a higher bonus. Explain why they got the bonus they did (compared to colleagues) and what they can do for next year. Again, this presumes that there were justifiable and fair criteria used to explain their bonus. Some team members may feel bad about their higher bonus—or bad they colleagues know how high it was. Help them understand the criteria that went into their higher bonus (e.g., how is was earned) and the steps you’ll take to help the rest of the team understand what they can do to get a higher bonus, if they want one.


Coach Employees Who Want a Bigger Bonus

It can be helpful to talk with each person about what they can do in the coming year to receive a bigger bonus if they so desire. (Or better yet, ask them their thoughts about their bonus and what they’d like for next year so that you can coach them about how they can work toward their bonus goal—what the criteria would be and how to meet those criteria).


In the Future, Show the Criteria in Action

While you may not want to disclose each person’s bonus in future years, for transparency (and fairness), you may want to consider sharing some type of anonymized, aggregate data about bonuses and how decisions were made, highlighting the system you develop.


Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.


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