Raise vs. Bonus for Your Small Business Employees?

Employees are the backbone of every small business. They are the face of the enterprise and directly influence its success or failure.

Hiring and retaining top-tier talent is a key objective for business owners, and paying the employees is an important part of the recipe for success. Evaluating the pros and cons of raises versus bonuses and striking the right balance between the two can help a business owner achieve staffing goals while also maintaining a healthy bottom line or profits.

Key Takeaways

  • Raises can be a set percentage of an employee's pay and increase each year.
  • Raises help employees to budget their monthly expenses and keep up with the cost of living.
  • However, raises are a permanent increase in payroll expenses.
  • Bonuses are more financially flexible for business owners since bonuses are a variable cost.
  • Bonus incentives can be tied to sales or production volumes and help companies boost their profits during peak times.

Understanding The Right Compensation Mix

Making money is the reason most people go to work. From the employee’s perspective, more is better. However, employers may not always be able to pay their employees more money. As a result, many small business owners offer employee compensation packages that are made up of a mix of salary raises and periodic bonuses. This compensation package enables business owners to reward employees when business conditions are good and adjust variable costs to reduce expenses when business conditions are tough.


Some companies give out across-the-board raises each year, with every employee receiving the same amount. The raise could be a set percentage based on the employee's pay. An annual raise helps employees plan and budget for their monthly expenses by helping them keep up with the cost of living. Although there are many ways to motivate and retain a company's best employees, raises help boost employee morale and ensure that long-time employees are rewarded more than their new hires.

A small percentage raise each year can be less costly than paying bonuses that often fluctuate with sales or production numbers. However, annual raises are a permanent increase in the cost of doing business. Often times, payroll expenses is the largest expense for a company. As a result, it's important that business owners determine whether the company generates enough revenue and monthly cash flow to meet the increased payroll expenses.

Cash flow is the net amount of inflow and outflows of cash from a company and is reported on the cash flow statement. Business owners must address the increased salary expenses in their monthly budgets using their cash flow and revenue estimates. If there is a cash-flow shortage, a business could have disruptions with its day-to-day operations.

Companies with predictable and steadily rising profits might find it easier to issue raises than companies with periodic or seasonal earnings. Also, companies with variable costs and less predictable revenues are typically more reluctant to issue a permanent increase in payroll expenses.


Bonuses can be more financially feasible for business owners to manage since they're a variable cost. In other words, the payment of a bonus could be tied to sales or production volumes. Employees can be incentivized to exhibit the behavior that a business needs to be successful, whether it's generating new clients, client retention, or improving cost controls. While pay raises typically reward longevity, bonuses are paid based on performance.

Since the compensation is variable, a bonus can be reduced or eliminated if business conditions make it difficult or impossible to fund them. The variable cost structure of a bonus package helps business owners during times of low sales or production volumes. Unlike the permanent nature of pay raises, bonuses keep payroll costs low when the revenue isn't there to pay them.

While the ability to minimize or avoid the expense is attractive for business owners, it can be detrimental from the perspective of an employee’s morale. Employees rely on their income to pay bills and put food on the table. Large, unpredictable fluctuations can be disruptive and cause employees to seek employment elsewhere. Because of this, employers should take care to communicate to staff members that the ability to reduce expenses when necessary not only helps the company save money but also avoids the need to make staff reductions when business temporarily slows. In a well-run business, cutting bonuses can save jobs.

How Big a Bonus and What Type?

A typical payout structure is 3%–5% of an annual salary for clerical and support staff. Managers could receive payments in the low double-digit percentage range, with executives in the mid-double-digit range. Senior executives at the highest levels may receive the majority of their compensation via bonus payments.

Bonuses can be structured to recognize individual merit or to reward collective success. Individual-merit–based bonuses reward top-producing employees for their efforts.

For example, sales-based bonuses could be paid to the employee that generates the most new business. Production-based bonuses could be structured for those who answer the most customer phone calls or produce the most widgets.

Also, bonuses can be a short-term incentive, such as a new directive or sales campaign. For example, a three-month sales initiative to bring in new business or a business with seasonal production increases could be tied to a bonus system. By incentivizing during peak times, the company can maximize its revenue and profits during a critical time of the year.

A bonus can also be based on the overall company's success. If the company hits its sales goals, profitability goals, or other defined metrics, all employees are rewarded. Under a company-based system, employees often receive a predetermined payment amount that is based on the collective achievements of the corporation rather than individual performance.

In short, bonuses can be part of an employee's ongoing compensation package or offered as one-time events to recognize significant milestones such as growth, profitability, or longevity.

Other Forms of Compensation 

While cash bonuses are likely the most familiar form of a bonus, there are other forms that may be worth considering. Companies can offer an ownership stake in the company, which can come in the form of a partnership offer in the firm, or through shares of stock. Smaller companies that cannot extend such offers could still consider the creation of a profit-sharing plan that makes a discretionary payment toward employees’ retirement savings.

There are various unique employee offerings that can provide an incentive for team members. Other possibilities include granting extra vacation days, awarding tickets to a sporting or cultural event, movie passes, and gift certificates. These small tokens of appreciation are available to even the smallest of businesses at a reasonable cost.

Special Considerations

It's also important to consider the impact of bonuses and raises on a company's profit margins. A company's margin is the amount of profit generated as a percentage of sales. If, for example, a company has a margin of 35%, it means the company generates 35 cents for each dollar of sales. Business owners need to analyze how a bonus versus a raise would impact the company's profit margin.

It can be helpful to backtest a raise or bonus incentive plan with a prior year's financial performance to gauge how much expenses would rise and impact profit margins. Of course, it's difficult to estimate the increased amount of sales that would have been generated had a bonus structure existed in prior years. However, applying a potential raise and bonus payout structure to prior years' sales and revenue figures should provide owners with a sense of the potential cash flow situations.

Since employees are at the heart of any successful business, rewarding them properly is critical to success. Any compensation model should involve incentivizing employees and providing ongoing communication to ensure team members know their efforts are appreciated.