Discretionary Bonuses in Business

A discretionary bonus is a special extra payment that business owners can give to employees to motivate them and show appreciation for their hard work. These bonuses are not fixed or guaranteed, instead, you have the flexibility to decide when and how much to give based on how well employees perform and contribute to the company’s goals. Thinking about using discretionary bonuses in your business? Here’s how you can implement them effectively to inspire your team to excel.

What is a Discretionary Bonus?

A discretionary bonus is the extra money that an employer can choose to give to an employee unexpectedly. This type of bonus isn’t based on meeting certain goals or targets and there’s no set amount or specific time when it’s promised. Essentially, it’s a surprise reward that isn’t tied to any previous agreements or promises. The employee shouldn’t expect this bonus, it’s given at the employer’s discretion and can seem random.

“When an employee receives a discretionary bonus, he or she should not expect a payment commitment, it should be arbitrary or unplanned.”

Discretionary Vs Nondiscretionary Bonuses

Discretionary and nondiscretionary bonuses are two different ways of rewarding employees. A discretionary bonus is given without any specific requirements, it’s up to the employer when and how much to give. This type of bonus is usually unexpected.

On the other hand, a nondiscretionary bonus has clear criteria that the employee needs to meet to earn it. The employer sets these expectations in advance and explains to the employee what they need to do to get the bonus. Examples of nondiscretionary bonuses include hiring bonuses, performance bonuses and incentive pay plans. These are based on meeting specific performance or productivity goals.

Type of Bonus Definition Examples
Discretionary Bonus Given without specific requirements, amount and timing are at the employer’s discretion. Surprise bonuses based on employer’s wish
Nondiscretionary Bonus Has clear criteria that need to be met, details are set in advance and communicated to employees. Hiring bonuses, performance bonuses, incentive pay plans based on specific goals

Why it’s Important to Understand Different Types of Bonuses?

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) sets rules on who gets overtime pay. When you give bonuses to your employees, it could change their usual pay, which might lead to extra overtime pay. Here’s how it works:

  • Exempt employees get a yearly salary and have to finish their tasks no matter how long they take each week. They don’t typically get overtime.
  • Nonexempt employees need to be paid one and a half times their hourly rate for hours worked over 40 in a week.

If you give a nondiscretionary bonus (one where employees need to meet specific goals to earn it) to a nonexempt employee, this bonus can increase their hourly rate. So, if that happens, you must include this bonus when you calculate their overtime pay or retro pay. This doesn’t apply to discretionary bonuses, as these are given without set goals or expectations.

Types of Discretionary Bonuses

Employers can give discretionary bonuses for several reasons, such as:

  • Overcoming a tough situation: If an employee handles a difficult challenge well.
  • Exceptional performance: When an employee does something outstanding that isn’t covered by regular performance criteria.
  • Extra effort: If an employee goes above their regular duties.
  • Employee recognition: Like being named employee of the month or quarter.
  • Holiday or year-end appreciation: To thank employees during festive seasons or at the end of the year.
  • Employee referrals: If an employee helps hire someone new by referring them.

Referral Bonuses

Referral Bonuses

Referral bonuses are given to employees who help bring new people to the company. These are discretionary if:

  • The employee chooses to take part in the referral program.
  • Recruiting doesn’t take up much of their work time.
  • The employee uses their own time to recruit people they know like friends or family.

Retention Bonuses

These are given to keep employees around during important times, like a merger or a big project. The idea is to encourage employees to stay until a certain date to keep things stable.

Holiday Bonuses

Holiday Bonuses

These are bonuses given at the end of the year or during special events. They can be cash or gifts, depending on what the employer usually does. However, if this becomes a regular thing that employees start to expect every year, it could be seen as nondiscretionary. This means it becomes part of the expected compensation, especially if it’s given out regularly and fairly to everyone.

Type of Bonus Reasons/Conditions for Awarding Additional Notes
Challenge Bonus Given for overcoming difficult situations. Typically awarded after successful management of a specific challenging scenario.
Exceptional Performance Bonus Awarded for performance that stands out but isn’t covered under regular criteria. Recognizes extraordinary efforts or achievements beyond typical job requirements.
Extra Effort Bonus For going beyond usual duties. Acknowledges initiative and additional responsibilities taken on by the employee.
Employee Recognition Bonus Examples include employee of the month or quarter. Used to motivate and reward outstanding contributions on a regular basis.
Holiday/Year-End Bonus Given during festive seasons or at the end of the year for general appreciation. Can be cash or gifts, if expected yearly, might transition to being seen as nondiscretionary.
Referral Bonus Given for referring new employees. Discretionary if the employee voluntarily participates, recruitment doesn’t significantly impact work time and involves recruiting acquaintances during off-hours.
Retention Bonus Offered to ensure employees stay through crucial periods like mergers or major projects. Encourages employees to remain with the company until a key date or milestone is reached to maintain stability.

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Creating an Effective Bonus Plan

When setting up a bonus plan, consistency is key. Employers should aim for a clear and understandable process for everyone involved. Here’s how to structure a good bonus plan:

Aspect Guideline
Simplicity Keep the plan easy to understand.
Fairness Ensure all employees are eligible for bonuses.
Timing Award bonuses soon after achievements.
Relevance Connect bonuses to meaningful achievements.
Material Give bonuses that are substantial and valued.


1. Simplicity

  • What to do: Keep the bonus plan simple and easy to understand.
  • Why it matters: Both managers and employees should clearly know how bonuses are determined and why they are given. This transparency helps in smooth implementation and acceptance.

2. Fairness

  • What to do: Ensure the bonus is fair and accessible to all employees across departments.
  • Why it matters: Fairness promotes a sense of equity and prevents feelings of favoritism or exclusion, which is crucial for maintaining team morale.

3. Timing

  • What to do: Issue bonuses close to the time they are earned, within the same pay period if possible.
  • Why it matters: Delaying bonuses can lead to them being perceived as nondiscretionary (expected), which can complicate things legally and financially. Keeping the timing varied and not predictable also helps maintain the discretionary nature.

4. Relevance

  • What to do: Make sure the bonuses are meaningful and tie them to specific achievements or milestones.
  • Why it matters: Connecting bonuses to meaningful contributions or accomplishments increases the sense of achievement and motivation among employees.

5. Material Significance

  • What to do: Offer bonuses that are substantial enough to be valued by employees.
  • Why it matters: Small or symbolic bonuses might be perceived as insincere or patronizing, potentially demotivating employees instead of encouraging them.

By focusing on these key aspects, employers can create a bonus plan that not only motivates employees effectively but also enhances their engagement and satisfaction at work.

Funding Discretionary Bonuses

Employers need to plan financially for discretionary bonuses. This involves setting aside a specific budget or creating a pool of funds from which bonuses can be distributed. The total amount available will determine how much can be given out during a certain period.

Calculating Discretionary Bonuses

Calculating Discretionary Bonuses

Employers can decide on bonus amounts based on the funds they have available. Here are a few ways they might calculate these bonuses:

  • Percentage of Sales: Calculate the bonus by applying a set percentage to the total sales an employee has made.
  • Bonus Per Sale: Give a specific bonus amount for each sale an employee makes.
  • Divided Designated Sum: Distribute a predetermined total bonus amount evenly among employees.
  • Hours Worked: Compute a bonus based on the total hours worked by all employees, assigning an hourly bonus rate that is then multiplied by the number of hours each employee worked.

These methods provide flexibility in how bonuses are distributed, allowing employers to tailor the bonus structure to their business’s performance and their employees contributions.

Implementing Discretionary Bonuses for Employees

1. Communicating the Bonus Plan

Proper communication is crucial to ensure your discretionary bonus plan is effective and motivational. Wordle Magazine has provided some points to keep everyone in the loop:

  • Companywide Email: Send a detailed email to all employees explaining the new bonus plan. Include eligibility criteria and examples of actions or achievements that might qualify for a bonus.
  • In-Person Meetings: Hold meetings with different teams to go over the bonus plan, allowing employees to ask questions and clarify doubts directly.
  • Employee Newsletter & Website: Regularly update the bonus plan information in the employee newsletter and on the company’s internal website to keep it fresh in employees’ minds.
  • Details to Share: Make sure to explain how employees can qualify for bonuses, such as by achieving high performance, referring a new employee or being the top performer in their department during a specific month.

2. Including the Plan in the Employee Handbook

Incorporating the bonus plan into the employee handbook solidifies its presence within company policy and provides a constant reference:

  • New Hires: Introducing the bonus plan in the handbook helps inform new employees from the start about the potential rewards for their efforts.
  • Ongoing Reference: Ensuring the bonus plan is in the handbook allows any employee to revisit the criteria and processes whenever necessary, maintaining transparency.

3. Training Managers on the Bonus Criteria

Managers need to be well-informed about the bonus plan because they typically play a significant role in deciding who receives bonuses:

  • Criteria Understanding: Train managers on the detailed criteria for each type of bonus. Clarify which elements are strictly measured and which are more subjective.
  • Judgment Leeway: Discuss the extent to which managers can use their judgment in awarding bonuses, particularly for more subjective criteria like “outstanding work.”

4. Setting Up Structured Reviews

Regular reviews are essential to assess which employees qualify for bonuses, ensuring fairness and consistency:

  • Review Schedule: Establish a regular review schedule, such as quarterly or monthly, to evaluate employee qualifications for the bonus.
  • Review Process: During these reviews, managers and HR should collaborate to assess performance metrics and other qualifying factors.
  • Decision Making: Determine how to allocate bonuses among qualified employees. If multiple employees qualify and the bonus pool is limited, decide whether to reward everyone equally or to select top performers based on set criteria.

“Inform managers that partiality is not acceptable when deciding who will earn a bonus. Choosing favorites for successive bonuses can harm employee morale.”

5. Handling Multiple Qualifiers

In cases where multiple employees meet the bonus criteria:

  • If the Budget Allows: If the bonus budget permits, consider rewarding all qualifying employees to boost morale and motivation.
  • If the Budget is Limited: If resources are limited, you may need to prioritize employees based on performance rankings or critical contributions during the review period. Alternatively, establish a rotation system where employees recognized in one period are differently prioritized in the next ensuring everyone gets recognition over time.

Implementing these steps with detail and care will help make your discretionary bonus plan a successful tool for motivating your employees and achieving company goals.

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What is a Discretionary Bonus?

A discretionary bonus is an extra payment given to employees at the employer’s discretion, without prior promises or obligations. These bonuses are typically awarded for exceptional performance, achievements or under special circumstances and are not guaranteed.

What is a Non-Discretionary Bonus?

A non-discretionary bonus is a pre-determined and promised bonus that employees expect to receive upon meeting certain criteria or achieving specific goals. This type of bonus is often outlined in the employee’s contract or company policies, making it an expected part of the compensation.

Is Bonus Payment Discretionary?

Bonus payments can be discretionary or non-discretionary. Discretionary bonuses are given at the employer’s discretion without a prior contract or promise, making them unexpected by the employees. Non-discretionary bonuses, however, are expected and are typically based on pre-set criteria.

What is the Difference Between Discretionary Vs Non-Discretionary Bonus?

Discretionary bonuses are optional and not expected. They are awarded at the employer’s discretion. Non-discretionary bonuses, on the other hand, are expected and are given based on meeting previously established criteria like sales targets or project completion.

What is Discretionary Bonus California?

In California, discretionary bonuses are considered sums given without any prior contract, expectation or promise, thus not affecting an employee’s overtime rate calculation. However, employers must still comply with California’s strict wage and hour laws, ensuring that such bonuses are indeed discretionary as defined by law.

What is the Meaning of Discretionary Bonus?

A discretionary bonus meaning is a sum of money given to an employee by an employer as a reward for good performance, special effort or for any other reason that the employer deems fit, without any pre-established criteria or expectation of payment. This type of bonus is not guaranteed and is at the full discretion of the employer.

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