It’s nearly that time of year so many in compensation and benefits have come to dread – end of year bonuses and the resulting litany of: “How come she got the same bonus I did? Clearly I worked harder.” Or “This isn’t as much bonus as last year and I did so much more.”

Bonuses, when used appropriately, can play an important role in a Total Rewards package. The challenge with them tends to arise when bonuses become an entitlement. For example, one article (requires membership) I read this week outlined how to structure a “money pool” approach to ensure your top performers get more of bonus budget. Another article argued the benefits of “paying bonuses” to those who would be hard-to-replace and not just top performers.

What’s wrong with these scenarios? Let me count the ways:

1) You’re adding so much complexity to what should be – and can be – so simple.
If you create a strategic recognition program, that allows anyone to recognise anyone else at any time for actions or behaviours you’ve pre-established as deserving of recognition, then naturally your top performers are going to receive a larger share of the “recognition” pie.

2) You’re separating the moment/action/performance deserving of recognition from the recognition itself. People need to be recognised soon after the action or behaviour deserving of recognition or they will lose any connection to the moment. Think of this as the puppy approach. Annual or quarterly bonuses can then reinforce trends in performance or achievement of long-term goals as they are intended to do as incentives.

3) You’re possibly “rewarding” people who don’t deserve a reward.
Especially with the idea that people should receive a bonus just because they might be “hard to replace.” If they’d be hard to replace because they’re a consistently high performer who does great work, then they will receive frequent recognition in a strategic program. If they’d just be “hard to replace” because of their degree or credentials, then giving them a bonus only encourages them to rest on their laurels.

4) You’re cutting people off from recognition for good work who may deserve it even though they’re not in the top 10 per cent.
Focusing so intently on top performers negates the excellent work another 70% of your workforce does that is also deserving of recognition, if not as frequently as the top performers. Adding recognition to the total rewards mix ensures a much higher percentage of employees can enjoy the appreciation they deserve.

The solution is to keep bonuses to a reasonable mix within the Total Rewards package and balanced with true after-the-fact strategic recognition. What’s the right balance? The answer depends on the company and culture, but consider reducing bonus levels by 30-40% within the ill-performing programs and reinvest that in a strategic recognition program. Our clients have proven strategic recognition tends to out-perform cash bonuses in improvements to employee attitudes and engagement by a factor of 10!