What is a Discretionary Bonus? What Managers Need to Know

Selective focus of manager holding dolar symbolising employee salary or bonus pay

In this article, we’ll dive into the world of discretionary bonuses, how they differ from other types of bonuses, and the impact they can have on employee motivation.

What is a discretionary bonus?

A discretionary bonus is a type of bonus payment that an employer can give to an employee at their sole discretion. Unlike non-discretionary bonuses, these are not based on a predetermined formula or set in a prior contract. Let's break down the key features of discretionary bonuses:

  • Flexibility in payment: Employers decide when and how much to pay as a discretionary bonus. It’s not tied to specific performance metrics or hours worked.

  • No guaranteed payment: Employees can’t expect these bonuses regularly, as they depend on specific circumstances like company profitability or exceptional performance.

  • Motivational tool: Such bonuses are often used to reward exceptional work or for other special occasions.

  • Not part of regular compensation: Discretionary bonuses are separate from an employee's regular rate of pay and annual salary.

  • Variable amounts: The bonus amount can vary, without a set formula to calculate discretionary bonuses.

Useful Read: Weighing the Pros and Cons of Performance-Related Pay

Distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses

Comparing discretionary and non-discretionary bonuses helps us understand their impact better. Non-discretionary bonuses, unlike discretionary ones, are announced beforehand and are usually tied to specific productivity goals or performance periods. Here's a brief comparison:

  • Promise causing expectation: Non-discretionary bonuses are often part of an employee's contract or agreement, meaning employees expect them as part of their compensation.

  • Calculation method: Non-discretionary bonuses are calculated based on a predetermined formula or specific bonus criteria, such as achieving sales targets or attendance bonuses.

  • Effect on overtime pay: Non-discretionary bonuses must be included when calculating overtime compensation for non-exempt employees, as per the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The role of discretionary bonuses in employee motivation

Discretionary bonuses can be a powerful motivator. Here are five points illustrating their role in enhancing employee motivation:

  1. Recognition of exceptional work: They serve as a reward for exceptional performance, encouraging employees to exceed expectations.

  2. Surprise element: The unpredictability of such bonuses can create a positive, exciting work environment.

  3. Flexibility for employers: Employers can tailor the bonus amount and timing to fit the company’s financial situation and reward specific achievements.

  4. Enhancing employee-employer relationship: By giving discretionary bonuses, employers can show personal appreciation, strengthening the bond with their employees.

  5. Encouraging company loyalty: Employees may feel more loyal to a company that recognizes their efforts with bonus payments, leading to reduced turnover.

Potential challenges in motivation and morale

However, there are challenges in using discretionary bonuses as a motivational tool. If not managed properly, they can lead to feelings of unfairness or favoritism.

To avoid such situations, it’s important to maintain transparency and ensure that all employees have an opportunity to qualify for these rewards. Balancing such bonuses with other forms of recognition and reward is also crucial in maintaining a positive and motivating work environment.

The benefits of a discretionary bonus scheme

The benefits of implementing a discretionary bonus scheme in a business setting are multifaceted and significant. Here are some key advantages:

  • Boosting employee motivation: Discretionary bonuses act as powerful motivators for employees. Companies using these bonuses have seen notable increases in employee motivation. They effectively reward hard work and exceptional performance, inspiring employees to contribute their best efforts.

  • Enhancing employee retention: Offering competitive rewards like discretionary bonuses can help retain top talent. The presence of such bonuses can significantly influence an employee's decision to stay with a company, thus reducing turnover.

  • Encouraging team collaboration: When structured to reward teamwork, discretionary bonuses can foster a sense of unity and promote a culture of shared success. They have been shown to lead to improvements in productivity when based on team performance.

  • Supporting company culture: A well-designed discretionary bonus system can reinforce a company’s values and culture. Aligning bonuses with specific behaviors or objectives encourages employees to embrace organizational values and contribute to a positive workplace environment.

  • Recognition and appreciation: Discretionary bonuses are a way to show appreciation for employees' hard work and accomplishments. This recognition can improve morale and increase engagement and loyalty among employees.

However, it’s important to manage these bonus schemes carefully. Issues such as potential favoritism or bias in distribution can arise, undermining the effectiveness of the bonus system and leading to employee dissatisfaction.

To minimize these risks, it's crucial to establish clear guidelines for awarding bonuses and maintain transparency in the process.

Legal and ethical considerations

When it comes to discretionary bonuses, there are both legal and ethical aspects that employers need to consider.

Legal framework governing discretionary bonuses

In the United States, the legal framework for discretionary bonuses is largely governed by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). According to 29 CFR § 778.211, for a bonus to be considered discretionary:

  • The employer must retain the discretion both about the payment and the amount until close to the end of the period for which the bonus is paid.

  • The payment should not be based on any prior contract, agreement, or promise that makes the employee expect such payments regularly.

  • Discretionary bonuses cannot be credited toward overtime compensation due under the Act.

Essentially, if an employer promises a bonus in advance, it loses its discretionary status and becomes a nondiscretionary bonus, which has different legal implications, particularly concerning overtime pay calculations.

Ethical concerns and fairness in distribution

Ethical considerations revolve around fairness and non-discrimination in the distribution of discretionary bonuses. It's important for employers to ensure that discretionary bonuses are given based on fair criteria and not favoritism.

Furthermore, employers must avoid any form of discrimination in awarding bonuses, whether based on gender, race, or other factors and maintain a level of transparency with employees about the criteria used for determining bonus recipients, even though the bonus is discretionary.

Avoiding discrimination and maintaining transparency

Avoiding discrimination and maintaining transparency in discretionary bonus programs are crucial. Employers should establish clear guidelines on how discretionary bonuses are awarded. Communication about the possibility and criteria for such bonuses, while keeping the element of discretion, can help set clear expectations.

Ensuring that all employees have an equal opportunity to qualify for these bonuses, based on their performance and contributions, is vital in maintaining a fair and motivating workplace.

Best practices for implementing discretionary bonuses

man holding money bag with dollar sign on top of wooden blocks symbolizing employee salary pay or bonus pay

When it comes to discretionary bonuses, there's a right way to do things. Here are some best practices:

Setting clear criteria for bonus eligibility

First things first, be clear about who can get these bonuses. It's not just about who worked the hardest. Think about what really matters to your company.

Maybe it's nailing those sales targets, coming up with smart ideas, or being the team player everyone can count on in a challenging or stressful situation. And remember, safety bonuses can be a great way to encourage a safe work environment.

Communicating effectively with employees about the bonus scheme

You've got to keep your team in the loop. They should know about the bonus program, but keep it clear that these aren't pay bonuses they get just for showing up.

It's something extra for going the extra mile. Be upfront about how you determine the amount of the bonus and when you'll hand them out. This way, there are no surprises, and everyone knows where they stand.

Aligning bonus distribution with company goals and values

Lastly, make sure your bonus structure is in tune with what your company stands for. Your bonuses should reflect the values and goals of your business.

For example, if you're all about innovation, reward the folks who think outside the box. Or, if customer service is your jam, consider bonuses for those who make your clients super happy.

Don't forget about things like referral bonuses. They can be a great way to get your team involved in growing the business. But remember, a bonus is discretionary. It's a reward, not a right. So, use it wisely to motivate and appreciate your team.

By following these best practices, you'll create a bonus program that's fair, clear, and really hits the mark with your team.

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Discretionary bonuses offer a range of benefits that can significantly enhance employee motivation, retention, and overall workplace satisfaction. By recognizing and rewarding exceptional performance, fostering team collaboration, and reinforcing company values, these bonuses can create a positive and productive work environment.

However, it's crucial for organizations to manage these schemes with fairness and transparency to avoid potential challenges like perceived favoritism. When implemented thoughtfully, discretionary bonuses can be a powerful tool for attracting and retaining top talent, ultimately contributing to the success of the business.

Topic: Bonus EN
Rinaily Bonifacio

Written by:

Rinaily Bonifacio

Rinaily is a renowned expert in the field of human resources with years of industry experience. With a passion for writing high-quality HR content, Rinaily brings a unique perspective to the challenges and opportunities of the modern workplace. As an experienced HR professional and content writer, She has contributed to leading publications in the field of HR.


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