What Is a Discretionary Bonus?

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  • Written By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2019
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A discretionary bonus is a monetary award that a boss or supervisor bestows upon an employee purely by choice. It is called “discretionary” because it is given at the discretion of someone with financial authority. For this reason, a discretionary bonus cannot be contracted or earned through any specific channels. Employees are entitled to fair wages and pay for time served, but a discretionary bonus is different. It is not something that can be demanded, or even expected in most circumstances.

Companies and firms often motivate employee productivity by setting up monetary bonus structures. There are two main types of bonuses: those that are performance-based and those that are discretionary. Both are usually awarded at the end of the year.

A performance bonus tends to be very straightforward. Employees who meet certain goals or achieve defined results are usually entitled to collect. Most of the time, a rewarding performance bonus is a contractual agreement. Any employee who satisfies the terms will receive the payment.

Things are much murkier where discretionary bonuses are concerned. Employers often publicize the possibility of this sort of reward as a way to motivate workers. There is no promise of payout, however, and award depends on a lot more than simply meeting stated goals.


Individual performance is a major part of most discretionary bonus awards. It is not usually the only factor, though. Overall corporate health, the amount of money that there is to spend, and the number of deserving employees can all play a part in whether or not a discretionary bonus is awarded.

In most cases, discretionary bonuses cannot be compelled. Even employees who feel that their performance is worthy of recognition usually have no grounds on which to demand that a discretionary award be made. As such, there is a latent potential for abuse under this structure that is not present with performance-based bonuses, as employers can dangle the hope of a bonus that may or may not have ever really existed.

Companies often refrain from setting a hard-and-fast discretionary bonus policy in order to minimize expectations. Most corporate literature speaks only generally about at-will bonuses. The choice to award a discretionary bonus is usually made on a lot of different factors, and companies tend to keep the process rather vague. This gives them the flexibility to give awards without having to meet specified criteria first.

Most countries consider money earned from discretionary bonuses to be income, even though it is not part of a salary and is prone to change from year to year. People who live in jurisdictions with income tax are almost always taxed on bonus earnings, usually at the same rate as their ordinary earnings and wages. Depending on the employer, taxes may or may not be withheld at the time of the award.


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Post 2

Glasis, no, they can't be sued. That is the unfortunate thing about discretionary bonuses and why most employers stay away from them.

A discretionary bonus is just that, made at the discretion of the employer. Unless you are promised a bonus, in writing, that you do not receive, you really have no recourse.

Most employers choose to give bonuses across the board to avoid this sort of issue and low morale.

Employees are less likely to complain if everyone is receiving a bonus, even if some are bigger than others.

One advantage for the individual employee with company-wide bonuses is that the employer would be forced to tell them why they were left out from the round of bonuses, giving them a chance for objection.

Post 1

Can an employer be sued for giving a bonus to some employees, but not others working on the same project or in the same department?

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