Incentive Plans: Who Makes the Cut?

January 11th, 2016

incentive-pay-1-11-16.pngBanks frequently ask the question: Who should be included in their various performance-based incentive plans? Of course the answer to this question isn’t clear cut. This article attempts to put some clarity—and statistics—behind this decision for both cash-based and equity-based incentive plans.

Cash-Based Incentive Plans
The eligibility for performance-based annual cash incentive plans ranges from zero employees to all employees. Yes, some banks still use a completely discretionary cash incentive or bonus program. The discretionary approach is not best practice, but is still prevalent. Today’s employees want to know what they need to do in order to receive a bonus, and companies are better served by giving these employees some clarity.

Budgeting for performance-based cash incentives can be relatively easy. Start by determining how much you are willing to share and what you can afford to share. It is recommended that you establish a minimum profit amount, or income trigger, that must be achieved before any cash incentive is paid. This gives you some cushion and protects your company and shareholders from paying bonuses it can’t afford. Once you have built in the cushion, run some cost estimates based on your eligible employees and their potential incentive awards.

The truly difficult part for performance-based cash incentive plans is the goal setting. Identifying overall company goals should not be complicated (lean on your strategic plan), but the individual and department goals may be challenging. It’s easiest to establish goals and track performance for production-focused positions. However, for operations-focused positions, companies sometimes decide to either base these positions’ annual incentive solely on corporate goals or “throw their hands up” and move to discretionary goals. It’s not easy, but banks should work to establish objective goals. You may not get it perfect the first time, but keep working on it. Goal setting is a process that you get better at over time.

So who should participate? Our Blanchard Consulting Group 2015 Bank Compensation Survey (which included 124 public and private banks and 140 positions) gathered data on bonus payments, incentive award opportunity levels, and the prevalence of performance-based incentive plans. The survey showed that the use of performance-based incentive plans increases with the size of the organization (from 41 percent prevalence in banks below $500 million in assets to 72 percent prevalence in banks above $1 billion in assets). The target award opportunity levels generally ranged from approximately 30 percent of salary for executives down to 2 percent of salary for entry level positions. One interesting finding from the survey was that every position had cash bonus/incentive amounts being paid. This doesn’t mean every bank paid bonuses to everyone, or that they were all based on performance, but it does mean there were at least a number of banks that paid bonuses all the way throughout the organization. Ultimately, the decision is up to each bank, but it is recommended that all full-time positions be eligible to participate in the cash incentive plan.

Equity-Based Incentive Plans
The days of having stock-option plans that include all employees in the bank are long gone. Equity-based plans are far more prevalent in the executive and officer group than other employees. However, some banks are still using equity at lower levels in the organization. The Blanchard Consulting Group 2015 Bank Compensation Survey gathered data on equity plan prevalence, employee eligibility in banks with a plan, and grant prevalence over a multi-year period, from 2012 to 2015.

The findings showed that much like cash incentive plans, the prevalence of equity-based plans increases with the size of the organization: 26 percent of banks below $500 million in assets have equity-based plans and 55 percent of banks above $1 billion in assets have them. The most interesting findings from our equity review surrounded the eligibility data. Not surprisingly, 70 percent of executive level positions had equity plans. These numbers dropped to below 10 percent for some entry level positions, but surprisingly, the mid-level positions showed eligibility in the 20 percent to 40 percent range. The actual grant prevalence data over a multi-year period was generally above 75 percent for executives and stayed above 40 percent for many mid-level positions. This shows that banks with an equity plan are using it well below the executive level.

In summary, it seems clear that banks are leaning towards including more of their employee base in their cash and equity-based incentive plans when they have these programs. This requires extra work in administration and communication, but hopefully is creating an engaged staff that is driving towards the success of the bank in a unified way.


Matt Brei is the president of Blanchard Consulting Group.  He has been a compensation consultant since 2000 and has been exclusively focused on the banking industry since 2002.