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Whatever Happened to the Holiday Bonus?

Like Cousin Eddie, do I need to kidnap my boss to get one?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

I remember my dad getting a holiday bonus every year. I’m not that old so it can’t be that old-fashioned a thing. Plus, Clark Griswold not getting one is a major plot point in Christmas Vacation — again, not that old a movie. And yet, I don’t know anyone my age who’s ever gotten one. (I actually don’t know many people who’ve gotten a bonus of any kind.) So were they ever really an annual tradition, or have they just been phased out? —Nick R., Chicago

Holiday bonus mythology is strong this time of year, so I’m glad you asked. While there’s survey data from 2015 indicating that 80 percent of companies give holiday bonuses, I’m not sure that’s accurate. Instead, I think there’s a lot of confusion about gifts versus awards that needs clearing up.

Most companies provide bonuses to their salaried, exempt employees, but not necessarily to their hourly, nonexempt workers. And some companies that talk about holiday bonuses are actually talking about year-end bonuses that are typically tied to business and individual performance. Come December, the company generally knows what the payoff looks like and may either pay the entire amount or a portion as the “holiday bonus.” In fact, I used to work for a company that paid 60 percent of its annual bonuses at the holidays — it added to the happy holiday feeling — and the remaining 40 percent at the beginning of February after the books closed for the previous year.

True holiday bonuses tend to be found at holiday parties (e.g., gift certificates, wrapped grab-bag presents and/or company swag) where good will and celebration are combined to show employees how much they’re valued for their hard work throughout the year. I’ve found this to be particularly true with small businesses that tend to treat employees as family. I’ve also worked for a company that made contributions to local charities instead of doling out small holiday bonuses because they felt it better reflected the spirit of holiday giving.

If you work for a company that doesn’t have holiday bonuses, bring the holiday cheer to your teammates by starting your own intra-office holiday traditions, such as instituting a white-elephant gift exchange or volunteering together at a nearby soup kitchen. Or consider expanding your horizons globally in the new year by seeking out job opportunities in the many Latin American countries where a 13th-month holiday bonus is tradition.