You will be very, very lucky to receive anything resembling a traditional guaranteed bonus, a contractual agreement to pay you a specified bonus, no matter your performance, in this market. Not only are banks forbidden from paying them in all but the most exceptional of circumstances, having increased salaries substantially in a declining market, they’re in no position to increase fixed costs still further anyway.
Instead, headhunters say more and more banks are turning to verbal guarantees: assurances that the individuals they recruit will be paid specific bonuses, but assurances that are not codified in writing.
Unfortunately, verbal guarantees may be a path to grave disappointment.
“Sadly, more than half the people we come across who’ve been offered verbal guarantees end up unhappy,” says Jonathan Evans, chairman of equity-focused search firm Sammons Associates. “A manager might promise something to get you on board, but who’s to say that manager will still be there at bonus time or that the economic situation won’t have worsened thereby reducing the bonus pot to go round?
“I’m afraid that I’m from the school where I think it’s important for any contractual obligation to be in writing,” Evans adds. “Everyone likes to say their word is their bond, but in investment banking that’s proven to not always be the case.”
Employment lawyers say there are plenty of examples of people working in investment banks who’ve being promised things early on in the interview process which somehow get dropped from the specification by the time it comes to signing the contract: “People are often lured in with various promises,” says one, “but when they eventually receive a document from HR, there will be no mention of those promises at all.”
Instead of a mere verbal guarantee, lawyers therefore advise anyone negotiating a contract to push for a soft guarantee in writing. "Soft" guaranteed bonuses are those which promise the bank will pay a specific bonus as long as various conditions are fulfilled. “Banks will try to duck the bonus rules by writing contracts that say a specific bonus will be paid if certain targets and expectations are met,” says Jane Mann, head of the employment team at Fox Williams solicitors.
Unfortunately, soft guarantees are problematic too. Banks will often reserve the right to alter the conditions under which a bonus will be paid. This again, leads to disappointed new hires complaining to lawyers that banks have moved the goalposts in order to pay less than they’d expected at bonus time.
And yet, a soft guarantee is probably the best you’ll get now. “The employer can always say they’d love to give you a hard guarantee, but they can’t,” says one employment lawyer. “This is the truth. If they offer anything which looks like an unavoidable guarantee in routine hiring circumstances, the [regulators] will be all over them.”