Bonuses that go to charity can boost job satisfaction, study says

'Pro-social bonuses' might have better results than bonuses people spend on themselves, researchers say.
(Mary MacVean / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Job satisfaction is at a 20-year low in the U.S., and we’re spending more and more time at work. Some researchers say there’s a cheap and effective way to boost happiness and productivity.

Rather than award employees bonuses, either as individuals or in teams, employers who give money to their workers to spend on charities or on their colleagues get better results, the researchers reported this week in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers looked at three experiments. In one, workers at an Australian bank were given $25 or $50 to donate to the charity of their choice. In the others – done with 11 recreational dodge ball teams and 14 pharmaceutical sales teams – a third of the members of each team were selected to receive $20 they could spend on themselves or on their teammates.


Altruism is a deep-seated part of humanity, the researchers said. They call these sorts of awards “pro-social bonuses.”

The researchers said there’s an assumption that bonuses to workers are the best way to motivate them. That, they say, isn’t necessarily so. In fact, standard bonuses can harm workplace cohesion and create competition that leads to reduced teamwork.

In the bank experiment, it turned out that $25 was too little to make much difference. But those who had $50 to donate to charity reported enhanced happiness and job satisfaction compared with workers who didn’t get to donate.

As for the teams, the researchers found that when people spent the money on teammates, the whole team performed better than when people spent the money on themselves.

“The results across three studies suggest that a minor adjustment to employee bonuses – shifting the focus from the self to others – can create a more altruistic, satisfying and productive workplace,” wrote the lead researcher, Lalin Anik from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

@mmacvean on Twitter