John Lewis has sparked a backlash among its workforce after paying bonuses to hundreds of its staff, despite shelving its partnership-wide bonus.

The employee-owned group, which also operates the Waitrose grocery business, paid “special contribution awards” to almost 4,000 workers last year, according to the Financial Times.

The bonus awards, which have been in place for 10 years, are capped at 10% of salary and are handed out for exceptional service. John Lewis said the “vast majority” of the bonuses were given to frontline staff and members of the executive team were not included.

But this year’s awards have fuelled anger among the partnership’s wider 79,000 workforce after the retailer’s famous bonus was axed for the first time since 1953.

More than 1,000 comments about the bonuses have been posted on the John Lewis Partnership intranet, prompting a video message from the group’s executive director for people, Nikki Humphrey, to try and stem the anger.

John Lewis held a special council meeting yesterday to discuss the issue.

One staff member told the FT that the partnership’s founder John Speedan Lewis, who introduced the profit-sharing scheme back in 1920, “would be rolling in his grave at the way partners are being treated”.

John Lewis hit pause on the partnership bonus while it bids to transform its fortunes. It has vowed that the bonus will return once it rebuilds annual profits to £150m.

Among those who received the special contribution awards were 16 senior managers who shared almost £200,000.

A John Lewis spokesman said “Special contribution awards have been used for more than a decade and we’re proud to recognise partners across the business who have gone above and beyond supporting customers and feeding the nation during the pandemic. Nearly 4,000 awards were made last year — the vast majority to frontline partners.”

He added that 81% of the group’s employees “now receive the voluntary Real Living Wage and we’ve committed to paying it to everyone when our profits recover to £200m”.