How to Create a Simple Cash Bonus Plan to Incentivize and Attract Employees

showmethemoney-Jerry-Maguire-1Your employees, like wide receiver Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.) in the classic movie Jerry McGuire, are valuable commodities.  They will stay with you if offered proper incentives, especially if you “show them the money.”

One of the best ways to do this is to create a simple cash bonus plan.  A cash bonus plan offers employees a financial reward for achievement of corporate, business unit and/or individual goals. The goals can be short-term (e.g., annual or quarterly) or long-term (e.g., three to five years), or both.

The best cash bonus plans are easy for employees to understand and easy for companies to operate. The plan is memorialized in a short written document that is specifically tailored to the company. The company retains the right to amend the plan at any time.

A cash bonus plan can be particularly useful for LLCs and S-corporations that wish to share the economic benefits of ownership with employees without the burdens of issuing Schedule K-1s (with negative tax consequences to employees) or having additional owners with voting and other rights. Cash bonus payments are taxed as ordinary income to employees and subject to standard payroll withholdings and deductions.

A well-crafted plan is a wonderful tool to incentivize and attract high-performing employees.

Here is a summary of the main issues you should cover to create a simple cash bonus plan:

  1. Purpose. The purpose of the plan should be stated clearly so that employees understand its goals, such as “to attract and retain superior employees by providing a competitive bonus program that rewards outstanding performance.”
  2. Eligibility. To be eligible, an employee must typically work at least a minimum number of hours (e.g., 40) as a full-time employee. Employees who have been terminated or who have resigned prior to the bonus payment date are usually ineligible, as are temporary workers. Companies may implement special eligibility requirements as they deem appropriate.
  3. Funding Metrics. The bonus pool can be a percentage of company net income, adjusted net income, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), or any other pool of money that the company identifies. The pool is generally capped as a percentage of the chosen metric.
  4. Performance Goals. Performance goals should clearly describe the metrics that the employee is required to achieve to earn a bonus, and how award determinations are made. Goals should align corporate, business unit and individual performance targets with company interests and encourage teamwork, while retaining incentives for individual performance. Many plans define the maximum target bonus available to each plan participant at the beginning of the performance period if all goals are achieved. Goals may be separated into organizational and individual categories, such as corporate goals to increase earnings and individual goals for productivity, customer satisfaction and client procurement/retention. Goal categories may be weighed (e.g., 50% EBITDA, 50% individual) to encourage one factor over another or equal weight in each category, depending on company objectives. However, the simplest, most easily understsood plans tend to be the most successful.
  5. Bonus Payments. Bonus payments are customarily made within 30-60 days after the end of the performance period (e.g., quarter or year). Bonus payments may be prorated for employees who take approved leave, including maternity or parental leave, and according to date of hire.
  6. Calculation Method. The bonus payable to each employee may be calculated as a percentage or multiple of annual base salary or as a percentage of the bonus pool. Bonuses are often capped at a certain amount.
  7. Non-Assignment. Bonuses should be non-assignable to prevent incentives from being mis-directed. IRS private letter rulings require S-corporations to prohibit assignment of bonus rights to prevent classification of the bonus as a second class of stock.
  8. Withholding. All bonus payments should be subject to applicable deductions and withholdings for federal, state and local taxes, and any other required deductions.

If you are interested in creating a simple cash bonus plan for your company, please contact me at john@jmdorsey.com.

Photo credit: ‘Show me the money!’: Tom Cruise as Jerry Maguire

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