Amenities, Perks, and Bonuses Trump Salary Raises

Yacht-size bonuses for Wall Street big shots and employee-of-the-month plaques for supermarket standouts are nothing new, but companies’ continued efforts to keep costs down have pushed employers to increasingly turn to one-off bonuses and nonmonetary rewards at the expense of annual pay raises.

“There is a quiet revolution in compensation,” said Ken Abosch, a partner at Aon Hewitt, a global human resources company. “There are not many things in the world of compensation that are all that radical, but this is a drastic shift.”

According to Aon Hewitt’s annual survey on salaried employees’ compensation, the share of payroll budgets devoted to straight salary increases sank to a low of 1.8 percent in the depths of the recession. It dropped to 4.3 percent in 2001, from a high of 10 percent in 1981. It has rebounded modestly since the recession, but still only rose 2.9 percent in 2014, the survey of 1,064 organizations found. (These figures are not adjusted for inflation.)

Aon Hewitt did not even start tracking short-term rewards and bonuses — known as variable compensation — until 1988, when they accounted for an average of 3.9 percent of payrolls. Ten years later, that share had more than doubled to 8 percent. Last year, it hit a record 12.7 percent.

Of course, companies have long rewarded top executives and rainmakers with bountiful bonuses — and that continues to be true — but compensation experts say the prevalence and types of one-time rewards and perks have spread further down the ranks than ever before. Although pay-for-performance rewards for top achievers and signing bonuses to attract talent account for most of the one-shots, they also include company wide amenities and targeted perks, like lunches out with the boss or Visa gift cards.

“It affects the C.E.O. all the way down to the guy who sweeps the factory floor,” Mr. Abosch said. Ninety-one percent of the companies surveyed have at least one broad-based reward program, up from 78 percent in 2005 and 47 percent in 1991.

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Jeffrey R. Ungvary President

Jeffrey R. Ungvary