What is a Discretionary Bonus?

A discretionary bonus is a bonus paid to an employee at the employer’s own discretion.  Unlike a contractual bonus, which is predetermined and often tied to specific performance metrics, a discretionary bonus is not guaranteed and can be awarded based on the employer’s own judgment or changing circumstances.

The discretion inherent in these bonuses gives employers the freedom to reward exceptional performance, loyalty, or other contributions that may not be easily quantifiable. This discretionary nature allows employers to respond dynamically to changing business conditions and individual circumstances, fostering a culture of recognition and motivation within the workforce.

It’s important to note that discretionary bonuses are not governed by specific legal requirements regarding eligibility or distribution, giving employers significant latitude in their administration. However, employers should exercise this discretion fairly and consistently to maintain employee morale and avoid potential legal implications.

Why are discretionary bonuses best avoided

For example, Sarah, who works at ABC Corporation, has performed exceedingly well in her job last year, helping to keep clients happy and save on costs for the company. Her boss, Maria, wants to reward her, so she gives Sarah a $5,000 discretionary bonus (in addition to her base salary) at the end of the year to reward her for a job well done. The $5,000 amount was discretionary. Maria could have decided to make it $4,000 or $6,000, but using her own discretion, she chose $5,000 as the amount.

Discretionary pay is awarded solely at the employer’s discretion, without predetermined criteria, offering flexibility in rewarding exceptional performance. Non-discretionary bonuses, on the other hand, are contractually obligated and tied to specific performance metrics outlined in employment agreements or policies.  Read more about the difference between discretionary vs non-discretionary bonuses here.

Types of Discretionary Bonuses

Performance-Based Bonuses

Performance-based bonuses are awarded to employees based on their exceptional performance, exceeding predefined targets, or achieving significant milestones. These bonuses serve as tangible rewards for outstanding contributions to the organization’s success.

Holiday Bonuses

Holiday bonuses are granted during festive seasons or special occasions to express gratitude and appreciation to employees. These bonuses not only acknowledge employees’ dedication but also foster a sense of camaraderie and goodwill within the workplace.

Spot Bonuses

Spot bonuses, also known as on-the-spot bonuses, are awarded spontaneously to employees for specific actions, behaviors, or achievements warranting immediate recognition. They reinforce desired behaviors and encourage continuous excellence in performance. Checkout out spot bonus policy templates here. 

Profit-Sharing Bonuses

Profit-sharing bonuses involve distributing a portion of the company’s profits among employees as a bonus. This incentivizes employees to contribute to the company’s overall success and aligns their interests with those of the organization.


Non monetary incentives for employee incentive plans

Depending on the organization’s culture and objectives, other discretionary pay may include recognition bonuses, longevity bonuses, or referral bonuses. These bonuses cater to specific circumstances and further enhance employee motivation and engagement.

Understanding the various types of discretionary bonuses enables employers to design comprehensive reward programs that align with their organizational goals and values while recognizing and motivating employees effectively.

How to Calculate a Discretionary Bonus

Formulas and Methodologies

While discretionary bonuses do not typically adhere to rigid formulas like non-discretionary bonuses, employers may employ various methodologies to calculate bonus amounts:

  1. Percentage of Salary: Determine bonus amounts as a percentage of employees’ base salaries, adjusting the percentage based on performance, seniority, or other relevant factors.
  2. Flat Amount: Set fixed bonus amounts for all eligible employees or specific groups, regardless of individual performance or salary levels.
  3. Multiplier Approach: Apply a multiplier to employees’ performance ratings or achievement levels to determine bonus amounts, providing higher rewards for exceptional performance.
  4. Tiered Structure: Establish different bonus tiers based on performance levels or other criteria, with escalating bonus amounts corresponding to higher achievement levels.
  5. Subjective Assessment: Employ a subjective assessment process, where managers and supervisors use their discretion to determine bonus amounts based on their evaluation of individual contributions and performance.

Employers should select a calculation methodology that aligns with their organizational goals, values, and culture, while ensuring transparency and fairness in bonus allocation.

Factors to Consider

When calculating discretionary pay, employers must take into account several key factors to ensure fairness and effectiveness:

Performance: Evaluate individual or team performance against predetermined goals or benchmarks to determine bonus eligibility and amounts.

Contribution: Consider employees’ contributions to the organization’s success, including their efforts, achievements, and impact on key outcomes.

Budget: Assess the organization’s financial health and budgetary constraints to determine the total bonus pool available for distribution.

Market Trends: Stay informed about industry standards and market trends regarding bonus structures and compensation practices to remain competitive.

Employee Feedback: Solicit feedback from employees to understand their preferences and expectations regarding bonus programs, ensuring alignment with their needs and motivations.

How to Create a Discretionary Bonus Plan

Step 1: Define Clear Objectives Clearly outline the purpose and goals of the bonus program to guide decision-making effectively.

Step 2: Communicate and Ensure Transparency Transparently communicate bonus eligibility criteria, allocation process, and timeline to build trust and minimize misunderstandings among employees.

Step 3: Involve Stakeholders Engage employees, managers, and HR professionals in the design and implementation process to ensure alignment with their needs and increase buy-in.

Step 4: Maintain Flexibility and Adaptability Keep bonus criteria and allocation methods flexible to respond to changing business needs and employee feedback effectively.

Step 5: Automate Bonus Processes Automating incentive plans streamlines bonus allocation, ensuring consistency and transparency while reducing administrative burden. Platforms like Plentive provide solutions that automate bonus calculations, ensuring fairness and equity in bonus distribution while enhancing the employee experience and driving organizational success.

Legal and Tax Considerations

Compliance with Employment Laws

Ensure that the discretionary bonus plan complies with relevant employment laws and regulations governing bonus programs, including equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, wage and hour laws, and anti-discrimination laws. Review and adhere to applicable federal, state, and local regulations to mitigate legal risks and ensure fairness in bonus allocation.

Tax Implications for Employers and Employees

Understand the tax implications of discretionary bonuses for both employers and employees. Discretionary bonuses are subject to federal, state, and local income taxes, as well as Social Security and Medicare taxes. Employers must withhold the appropriate taxes from bonus payments and report them on employees’ W-2 forms. Employees are also responsible for reporting bonus income on their tax returns. Consult with tax professionals or legal advisors to navigate the complexities of bonus taxation and ensure compliance with tax laws.

Documentation and Record-Keeping

Maintain accurate documentation and records related to the discretionary bonus plan, including bonus criteria, allocation decisions, and employee communications. Proper documentation serves as evidence of compliance with legal requirements and helps resolve any disputes or discrepancies that may arise. Establish robust record-keeping practices to track bonus payments, tax withholdings, and employee acknowledgments or consent forms. Retain records for the required statutory periods to facilitate audits and inquiries from regulatory authorities.


In this comprehensive guide, we explored the intricacies of discretionary bonuses, from their definition and types to their calculation, implementation, and legal considerations. We learned that discretionary bonuses are awarded at the employer’s discretion and can take various forms, including performance-based bonuses, holiday bonuses, spot bonuses, and profit-sharing bonuses.

What is a discretionary bonusWell-designed discretionary bonus plans play a crucial role in motivating employees, rewarding exceptional performance, and fostering a positive organizational culture. By setting clear objectives, communicating transparently, involving stakeholders, maintaining flexibility, and adhering to legal and tax considerations, organizations can create effective bonus programs that drive employee engagement, satisfaction, and productivity.

As organizations continue to evolve and adapt to changing business environments, the exploration and implementation of discretionary bonus plans remain essential. By leveraging the insights and guidelines provided in this guide, organizations can develop and implement discretionary bonus programs that align with their strategic objectives, enhance employee morale and retention, and contribute to long-term organizational success.

We encourage organizations to explore the possibilities offered by discretionary bonuses and to consider reaching out to Plentive’s incentive plan experts for assistance in designing and implementing tailored bonus programs that meet their specific needs and objectives.

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