Can I question my co-workers’ bonuses?

I am furious about my bonus. I worked hard all year. My numbers were great, the best I’ve ever had. I had a high evaluation from my boss and coworkers. When I was told the (very low) figure, I didn’t complain because my boss assured me he had worked hard to give me as much as possible and I was getting more than people senior to me. I now find that others with worse performance got far more money. It seems the reason I was passed over was that he knew I would not make a fuss. Is it too late to raise hell? Can I mention others’ bonuses, although they are supposed to be confidential?

VP, female, 35

LUCY’S ANSWER

You think a bonus is a reward for doing a good job. In fact, it is a prize you get for playing a game that is complicated, skilful and highly political. The boss controls the money and information, and the players lobby to get the biggest slice.

The winners are the people who get the biggest bonuses, but neither the winners nor the losers will know for certain whether they have won or lost because the boss will tell everyone they have won, even if they haven’t. The result is mass dissatisfaction and paranoia. Secrecy and disinformation abound. Nearly everyone will pretend their bonus is larger than it really was – it may well be that yours is not quite so out of line as you fear.

Yet, from the wording of your question, I suspect you are an innocent at this game. Partly, this is due to your sex. When a woman is told her bonus, she tends to smile and say “thank you”. A man will look disappointed if he is pleased and throw a tantrum if he is disappointed.

A good player will start lobbying months in advance for next year’s figure. They will talk endlessly and loudly about their imaginary successes. They will drop hints about all the people who are trying to hire them. They will be seen everywhere.

It is too late for you to throw a tantrum about last year’s bonus and always a mistake to refer to the bonuses your colleagues allegedly got.

However, it is not too late to start playing for next year – if you have the stomach for it. It may be that you find the game so distasteful that you’d do better in another career where you’d get no bonus – but wouldn’t mind as no one else would get one either.

Dear Lucy

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Lucy Kellaway, FT columnist and associate editor, offers her solution to your workplace problems in a fortnightly column in the Financial Times. In this weekly online edition of her 'agony aunt' column, readers are invited to have a say too. Read more about Dear Lucy here.

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