Elements of an Incentive Program

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Looking for a way to motivate or incentivize employees to meet a goal or objective? Whether it’s sales, productivity, service, quality, teamwork, or just a change in behavior, incentive programs can be an effective tool to meet your organization’s needs and objectives. Here are the most important elements of an incentive program.

 

Clarify the objective of the incentive program.

What is the purpose of providing the incentive? Will it be designed to improve the productivity of your production staff, increase sales, improve customer service, and enhance management? Usually, the objective of an incentive plan is tied to meeting some organizational or departmental goal or objective or motivating/changing a specific behavior. This may be general or specific to a certain work group or department.

Define the incentive.

Define the type of incentive you will provide and make sure that it aligns with the objective. Individual incentives should be tied to individual goals and performance, team incentives should be tied to team goals and performance, and so on. Also, will it be offered in addition to a salary increase or instead of one, and will it be considered part of the total compensation package? Below are three (3) types of incentives to consider.


Type of Incentive

Description

Individual incentives

  • Tied to the achievement of individual and/or organizational goals
  • Typically only distributed to specific individuals
  • Differentiates top, average, and bottom performers

Gain-sharing

  • Tied to the margin of profit or savings attained through a group or team’s performance
  • Typically only distributed to certain groups or teams
  • Rewards and encourages teamwork

Profit-sharing

  • Tied to the margin of profit attained by entire organization
  • Typically distributed to all employees or certain executives/managers
  • Provides employees with “line of sight” – how their contributions impact the organization’s success

 

Create a measure for the incentive.

Having a clear objective will make measurement easy. Measurement could be as simple as determining whether the goal was achieved or not achieved. You may also weight what percent of an objective was met (i.e. 75% of goal achieved or 110% of goal achieved). One key question your organization will need to consider is if you will payout for not reaching goals completely or if you will payout extra for exceeding goals.

Determine who is eligible to receive the incentive.

If the objective of the incentive plan is specific to a certain work group or department, eligibility should be constrained to only employees in those areas. If the objective is general, eligibility may be widespread, applicable to nearly all of the workforce. We find that incentive plans typically follow one of these two tracks.

Establish the size of the incentive.

This is, first and foremost, dependent on what your organization can afford to pay – which may vary from year to year and depend on cash flow, revenue, and profitability. The size of the reward may be a fixed dollar amount or a percentage of salary. On average, we find that variable pay costs account for 3% of revenue (variable compensation divided by total revenue) – compared to compensation costs which typically account for 25% of revenue. Below are average target percentages, maximum threshold percentages, and percentages of total cash pay that incentive/bonus pay represents.


Type of Employee

Average Target %

Max. Threshold %

% of Total Cash Pay

Production, Maintenance, Service

4.4%

6.6%

4.1%

Clerical, Technical

4.0%

7.7%

4.3%

Supervisory, Managerial, Professional

8.1%

12.1%

6.6%

Source: 2011 ERC Pay Adjustment & Incentive Practices Survey

Identify the form of payment.

Some incentive/bonus payments are paid out in lump sums annually, while others may be distributed across paychecks throughout the year. Annually is by far the most common frequency of payout, but quarterly is a close second. Monthly and semi-annual payments are extremely rare.

Incentive programs can be effective in promoting the behavior and results we want in our organizations, but in order to do that, they need to constructed effectively. This starts with clearly identifying the objective of the program and then aligning all of its pieces and parts (type, work groups eligible, size, form of payment, etc.) with that purpose.

Additional Resources

Pay Adjustment & Incentive Practices
Benchmark your organization’s pay adjustment and incentive plan practices with our ERC Wage & Salary Adjustment Survey. For more information about this survey (including pricing information), please click here.

Consulting & Project Support
For assistance in developing incentive/variable pay plans and compensation systems or benchmarking compensation practices, please contact consulting@yourerc.com.