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Companies turn to bonuses instead of raises

WASHINGTON — Faced with tight corporate budgets and an uncertain economic climate, employers are increasingly turning to bonuses and performance-based pay as a strategy for retaining top-performing workers.

Human resource specialists say this approach to compensation is attractive because it is flexible and allows companies to reward good work without creating additional fixed costs.

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‘‘If the organization is not having a good year, maybe their financial results are way down, then it allows cash payments to commensurately reflect poorer financial performance,’’ said Kerry Chou, compensation practice leader at nonprofit research group WorldAtWork.

But these one-time payouts are not just advantageous because they can be trimmed or withheld in an event of financial shock. They also provide a way for companies to incentivize productivity.

‘‘They’re placing their bets more on this idea of putting pay at risk and paying big if the company wins big,’’ said Ken Abosch, compensation practice leader at human resource consulting firm Aon Hewitt.

The switch to this compensation approach has intensified during the recent economic gloominess, but reflects a long-term trend.

Variable pay, a category of compensation that includes bonuses and other performance-based pay, was used by 82 percent of employers this year, up from 79 percent last year, according to a study by WorldAtWork. Another survey by Aon Hewitt found that companies allocated 12 percent of their payroll budgets for variable pay this year. In contrast, they spent just 3 percent of those budgets on salary increases.

That shift has occurred over the last 10 years, said Abosch, because ‘‘there’s a very strong belief and there’s evidence and academic research that shows that variable pay does create focus among employees.’’

In other words, bonuses help foster a concept known among human resource professionals as ‘‘employee engagement,’’ which is a measure of how invested a worker is in the company and his or her job.

When employees are highly engaged, the theory goes, they do better work.

But perhaps just as important, they are more committed to the company. And cultivating loyalty could be critical at a time when many companies are acutely focused on retaining top talent.

‘‘If the company performs and the [bonus] plan is funded, that doesn’t mean we should just hand those dollars to everybody,’’ said Laurie Bienstock, a leader for rewards consulting at Towers Watson.

Instead, a company can target the money at the staffers it values most. There are many varieties of bonuses, including those tied to the performance of the entire company or of a particular business unit.

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