In advance of the holiday season, it is common practice in many companies for the employer to show gratitude and to reward employees for their performance over the year. Typically, this is done by granting a bonus or similar one-time payment. Even though the legal basis of such payments often is a contractual agreement, a collective bargaining agreement or a works agreement, in many instances payment is made on an informal, “voluntary” basis. In such cases, employers often assume that they can decide whether to grant a bonus on a year-to-year basis without creating an obligation towards employees.
While this assumption can be correct, often employers are surprised when confronted with the idea of having established a “company practice”. According to German law, such company practice creates a legal entitlement of employees towards their employer for the same bonus granted during the last years. A typical situation for a company practice to surface is an employer who paid a year-end bonus to all employees, for example, the amount of one monthly salary for the last several years. After a change of ownership, the new management decides not to pay the respective bonus, only to find that employees successfully claim the previously paid bonus in German labor courts.
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