What Is a Bonus?

A bonus is a financial compensation that is above and beyond the normal payment expectations of its recipient. Companies may award bonuses to both entry-level employees and to senior-level executives. While bonuses are traditionally given to exceptional workers, employers sometimes dole out bonuses company-wide to stave off jealousy among staffers.

Bonuses may be dangled as incentives to prospective employees and they can be given to current employees to reward performance and increase employee retention. Companies can distribute bonuses to its existing shareholders through a bonus issue, which is an offer of free additional shares of the company's stock.

Key Takeaways

  • A bonus is a financial compensation that is above and beyond the normal payment expectations of its recipient.
  • Bonuses may be awarded by a company as an incentive or to reward good performance.
  • Typical incentive bonuses a company can give employees include signing, referral, and retention bonuses.
  • Companies have various ways they can award employee bonuses, including cash, stock, and stock options.

Understanding Bonuses

In workplace settings, a bonus is a type of compensation an employer gives to an employee that complements their base pay or salary. A company may use bonuses to reward achievements, to show gratitude to employees who meet longevity milestones, or to entice not-yet employees to join a company's ranks.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers bonuses as taxable income, which means employees will need to report any bonuses they receive when filing their taxes.

Incentive Bonuses

Incentive bonuses include signing bonuses, referral bonuses, and retention bonuses. A signing bonus is a monetary offer that companies extend to top-talent candidates to entice them to accept a position—especially if they are being aggressively pursued by rival firms. In theory, paying an initial bonus payment will result in greater company profits down the line. Signing bonuses are routinely offered by professional sports teams attempting to lure top-tier athletes away from competitive clubs.

Referral bonuses are presented to employees who recommend candidates for open positions, which ultimately leads to the hiring of said candidates. Referral bonuses incentivize employees to refer prospects with strong work ethics, sharp skills, and positive attitudes.

Companies offer retention bonuses to key employees, in an effort to encourage loyalty, especially in downward economies or periods of organizational changes. This financial incentive is an expression of gratitude that lets employees know their jobs are secure over the long haul.

Performance Bonuses

Performance bonuses reward employees for exceptional work. They are customarily offered after the completion of projects or at the end of fiscal quarters or years. Performance bonuses may be doled out to individuals, teams, departments, or to the company-wide staff. A reward bonus may be either a one-time offer or a periodic payment. While reward bonuses are usually given in cash, they sometimes take the form of stock compensation, gift cards, time off, holiday turkeys, or simple verbal expressions of appreciation.

Examples of reward bonuses include annual bonuses, spot bonus awards, and milestone bonuses. Spot bonuses, which reward employees who deserve special recognition, are micro-bonus payments, typically valued at around $50. Workers who reach longevity milestones—for example, 10 years of employment with a given firm—may be recognized with additional compensation.

Some businesses build bonus structures into employee contracts, where any profits earned during a fiscal year will be shared amongst the employees. In most cases, C-suite executives are awarded larger bonuses than lower-level employees.

Bonus Inflation

While bonuses are traditionally issued to high-performing, profit-generating employees, some companies opt to issue bonuses to lower-performing employees as well, even though businesses that do this tend to grow more slowly and generate less money. Some businesses resort to distributing across-the-board bonuses in an effort to quell jealousies and employee backlash. After all, it's easier for management to pay bonuses to everyone than to explain to inadequate performers why they were denied.

Furthermore, it can be difficult for an employer to accurately assess their employees' performance success. For example, employees who fail to make their activity quotas may be very hard workers. However, their performance may be hampered by any number of conditions out of their control, such as unavoidable production delays or an economic downturn.

Bonuses in Lieu of Pay

Companies are increasingly replacing raises with bonuses—a trend that vexes many employees. While employers can keep wage increases low by pledging to fill pay gaps with bonuses, they are under no obligation to follow through. Because employers pay bonuses on a discretionary basis, they may keep their fixed costs low by withholding bonuses during slow years or recessionary periods. This approach is much more viable than increasing salaries annually, only to cut wages during a recession.

Dividends and Bonus Shares

In addition to employees, shareholders may receive bonuses in the shape of dividends, which are carved from the profits realized by the company. In lieu of cash dividends, a company can issue bonus shares to investors. If the company is short on cash, the bonus shares of company stock provide a way for it to reward shareholders who expect a regular income from owning the company's stock. The shareholders may then sell the bonus shares to meet their cash needs or they can opt to hold onto the shares.

Article Sources
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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 525 (2019), Taxable and Nontaxable Income." Accessed Sept. 4, 2020.

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