Access Exclusive, Trusted HR News & Resources >>> New Professional Members Save $20 Today
Sustainable design practices lead to happy employees—and healthy businesses.
Is your employee handbook keeping up with the changing world of work? With SHRM's Employee Handbook Builder get peace of mind that your handbook is up-to-date.
Set yourself up for success with virtual SHRM-CP/SHRM-SCP Certification Prep Seminars.
#SHRM18 will expand your perspective – on your organization, on your career, and on the way you approach HR. Join us in Chicago June 17-20, 2018
Replacing merit-based pay increases with lump-sum rewards is a better way to motivate employees
Merit-based salary raises are by far the most frequently used incentive pay program. Unfortunately, they do a poor job of motivating performance, explained John A. Rubino, president of Pound Ridge, N.Y.-based Rubino Consulting Services, during his presentation at the 2012 SHRM Annual Conference and Exposition in Atlanta.
If he had his way, “merit-based salary increases would be abolished. Not only are they not motivational, they are
de-motivational to employees,” he argued. “We have to introduce rewards plans that actually help our managers do their jobs,” which is to motivate employees.
“The foundation for all of the rewards strategies we put forth should be to attract and retain the best and the brightest,” Rubino noted. “We need to spend more time on retaining and engaging those who are truly adding value.”
Where’s the ‘Merit’?
A big problem with annual merit raises is that they are viewed as an entitlement—everyone expects to get something. In fact, “at least 99 percent of employees get some increase in their pay every year” under merit-based programs. Those increases, once given, never go away—they compound exponentially, rewarding employees for past contributions for as long as they remain at the company. This is why “your mediocre employees—those who are comfortable with a small but guaranteed salary increase every year—love merit-based pay.”
Another negative outcome is the “zero-sum game ‘kabuki’ dance” that merit-based programs force managers to perform. “The more you give to one employee, the less you can give to another,” Rubino noted. Given the likelihood of working with today’s pay increase budgets of just 3 percent to 4 percent, “How motivated is a top performer going to be with a 4 percent raise, pretax, divided into 26 installments?” he asked.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------“Free your managers from the merit-based payzero-sum ‘kabuki’ dance.”--------------------------------------------------------------------------
In short, merit-based pay doesn’t reward merit—“it’s essentially paying for the job; employee performance is an afterthought,” despite all the time and effort managers are required to put into ratings, rankings and performance evaluations.
Moving to Variable Pay
A better way to motivate employees and reward top performers is to shift to variable pay rewards—lump-sum bonuses for goal achievement. “Globally, companies are moving in this direction, and if your company isn’t, eventually it will be,” Rubino predicted.
To make an incentive plan work, there must be a direct line of sight between employee performance and tangible rewards. While “organizationwide profit-sharing programs can create a nice esprit de corps,” they tend not to be effective motivators beyond the executive tier because “it’s unlikely lower-level workers will see a direct line between their work and corporate profitability.”
Instead, variable pay should focus on a mix of qualitative and quantitative incentives tied to individual and team performance, and these incentives should be aligned closely with the corporate culture. Rubino recommended quarterly payouts that are close in time to the behavior that’s being rewarded rather than year-end bonuses.
“Make variable rewards substantial—at least 5 percent of base pay—or don’t give anything until a larger reward is warranted,” Rubino advised. A bonus that is 1 percent of pay isn’t motivational and may have the opposite effect.
Program transparency and effective employee communications are keys to the success of a variable pay program, he emphasized.
Another tip: Over three to five years, slow down or eliminate merit-based raises. Replace them with lump-sum performance-based bonuses with market adjustments to base pay as warranted. Over that period, a variable rewards program can become self-funding as a result of increased performance metrics. “If designed properly, payouts to employees will yield slices from an expanding financial pie,” Rubino explained.
That boost in productivity allows top performers to earn substantial rewards, providing incentives that truly motivate employees—and freeing managers from the need to play the zero-sum game.
is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
Related SHRM Video:
Related SHRM Articles:
Incentive Pay Tips and Pitfalls Shared,
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline, June 2012
Reward Strategies Should Target Key Talent,
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline, May 2012
Integrating Performance Management and Rewards at Microsoft,
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline, May 2012
Performance: Make It More than a Catchphrase,
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline, May 2011
How to Use 'Carve-Outs' to Truly Pay for Performance,
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline, June 2011
SHRM Online Compensation Discipline
Salary Survey Directory
Compensation Data Center
Sign up for SHRM’s free
Compensation & Benefits e-newsletter
You have successfully saved this page as a bookmark.
Please confirm that you want to proceed with deleting bookmark.
You have successfully removed bookmark.
Please log in as a SHRM member before saving bookmarks.
Your session has expired. Please log in again before saving bookmarks.
Please purchase a SHRM membership before saving bookmarks.
An error has occurred
Recommended for you
Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network
SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies