In recent years, hundreds of thousands of office workers have gotten the dreaded tap on the shoulder and been sent to a conference room to be informed they are being sacked. Meanwhile, many of the folks involved in the dirty work of firing people are expecting higher bonuses this year.
A full 42 percent of all human resources executives believe bonuses for those in their line of work will rise, according to a survey by Robert Half International, the global staffing firm. Another 10 percent believe bonuses will fall and 43 percent believe they will hold steady this year.
Human resources executives are by far the most optimistic group of professionals surveyed by Robert Half, which polled the bonus expectations of people in such occupations as accounting, technology, law and advertising. In all, 30 percent of the 1,250 people surveyed by Robert Half expect higher bonuses this year. Employees in the legal profession had the least sunny outlook, with only 12 percent expecting higher bonuses this year.
Bonuses for the professions surveyed, as a rule, are far smaller than the sums pocketed by fortunate Wall Streeters. It isn't clear how bonus expectations compared to prior years because similar surveys weren't conducted, a spokeswoman said.
Nevertheless, the optimism expressed among those queried by Robert Half is a sign that the job market is firming up, at least within certain white-collar professions, said John Landers, a regional manager at Robert Half Financial Services Group.
"In the past uncertainty, people were just happy to employed, but now they're starting to seek new opportunities and that makes staff retention more important," Landers said. "In many cases, that means offering bonuses to keep people."
For many people, the job market—never mind bonuses—remains terribly difficult. Outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas reported Wednesday that the pace of private- and public-sector layoffs last month was 12.6% higher than a year ago. While employers last month announced plans for about 160,000 new hires, 96 percent of those jobs are temporary positions, primarily involving retailers staffing up for the holiday shopping season.
But within the white-collar world where Robert Half does business, things look much brighter. Landers said the unemployment rate for college-educated people is less than half the national average.
He added that of all the professions surveyed, human resources officials have unique insights that may give them particular bargaining power at bonus time. After all, they know exactly who is being hired and fired.
"They have first-hand insight into how business is going," Landers said, "and how much other employees are being paid."