Merit increase 101 : what employers should know

Miriam Groom, VP Sales & Marketing
Miriam Groom

10 March 2023 • Estimated reading time : 15 mins

Rewards and recognition are important motivators for many employees. While in the past, verbal praise was the norm, high-performing employees now expect to see their hard work reflected in their compensation in the form of a merit increase.

Merit increases are a common practice in workplaces, with an average budget of 3% of base salary allocated for these raises in recent years. However, some organizations may allocate as much as 5% or even 10% for merit increases, depending on the company and the employee’s performance.

It’s important to understand the concept of merit increases, as they differ from other forms of pay or pay increases. This guide will explore the eligibility criteria and which employees are most likely to qualify for merit increases. Additionally, we’ll discuss the importance of consistent and reliable policies, clear metrics for receiving merit pay, and effective communication of the policy to employees. By prioritizing merit increases, employers can recognize and retain top talent, motivating them to continue to perform at their best.

What is a Merit Increase and Why Does it Matter?

Merit increases are distinct from other kinds of pay raises, so it’s important to know what the definition of a merit increase is and how it’s determined.

With the many different types of salary increases available, it can be difficult to determine which one is appropriate for your situation. These options include merit increases, cost-of-living adjustments, performance-based rewards, and a straightforward pay raise. Regardless of the method used to increase your salary, it’s important to understand how these changes are determined. In this article, we’ll explore the realm of merit-based increases and how the use of people data and analytics can help simplify the process of making salary decisions.

Why do companies give merit increases?

Merit increases are often implemented by companies to acknowledge the accomplishments and commitment of their top-performing employees. Not only do these increases serve as a way to recognize hard work, they can also inspire greater productivity throughout the workplace by motivating everyone to strive for excellence. By incentivizing improved work performance, merit increases can help to foster a goal-oriented work culture that boosts productivity, which can in turn positively impact the company’s bottom line.

4 reasons why merit increases are important

Implementing a system that links hard work with financial rewards is advantageous for companies, as both employees and the organization can reap its benefits.

The benefits of merit increases include:

1. Encourage productivity in the workplace

When employees know that their direct contributions can lead to a potential pay raise, they are more likely to align their efforts with the company’s objectives. In the past, workers may have simply put in an average performance throughout the month without any incentive to go above and beyond. However, the prospect of receiving a merit increase can serve as a powerful motivator, inspiring employees to put in extra effort towards achieving the company’s goals. By providing this added incentive, companies can encourage their employees to strive for excellence and increase their overall level of performance.

2. Improve retention

In a workplace where employees are rewarded for their efforts beyond just their salary, it’s likely that there will be a reduced incidence of employee turnover. This is because employees are more likely to remain in a workplace where they feel valued and appreciated. By offering rewards such as merit increases for good performance, companies can encourage employee retention and increase their access to top talent.

It’s important to note that while a merit increase is a form of recognition and appreciation for good performance, it is not the same as a promotion. A merit increase typically involves a growth in compensation while the employee remains in the same job, whereas a promotion usually involves increased job responsibilities, more contributions, and a new job title. By offering both merit increases and opportunities for career advancement, companies can create a more fulfilling and rewarding work environment that helps to retain top talent.

3. Track progress

When companies attach monetary rewards to employee performance, beyond just their salary, it incentivizes and motivates employees to work towards achieving specific goals. By setting measurable targets for a given period of time, such as a month, quarter, or year, companies can create a culture of individual accountability, where employees are encouraged to perform at their best in order to earn rewards.

Through this process, companies can keep a closer eye on individual performance, as well as the overall performance of the team. This can result in improved productivity, increased job satisfaction, and a stronger sense of teamwork and collaboration. By rewarding employees who meet or exceed their goals, companies can foster a more positive work environment and create a culture of success and achievement.

4. Clarify company objectives

By attaching incentives to specific goals, companies communicate their priorities and objectives to employees. This helps to eliminate ambiguity about what employees should be focusing on, and how their contributions will impact the company and their personal earnings.

Through this approach, employees gain a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how they can contribute to the company’s success. This clarity can lead to increased motivation, engagement, and productivity, as employees are empowered to work towards clearly defined objectives. Incentives also encourage employees to think creatively and work collaboratively to achieve common goals, which can help to create a more positive work environment and foster a sense of shared purpose. Ultimately, by aligning incentives with strategic objectives, companies can drive performance, innovation, and growth.

5. Identify individual performance

Merit increases help managers to identify individual employee performance, rather than simply evaluating the performance of the team as a whole. By attaching incentives to individual performance, managers can more easily identify areas where employees excel, as well as areas where they need to improve.

This approach allows supervisors and HR professionals to work with employees on an individual basis, understanding their strengths and weaknesses and addressing them in a productive way that benefits both the employee and the company. For example, by identifying areas where an employee is struggling, managers can offer additional training or support to help the employee improve their skills and become more effective in their role.

In addition, merit-based incentives can help to identify high-performing employees, highlighting individuals in the organization who may be suitable for promotions or mentoring opportunities. This approach can help to foster a culture of recognition and development, where employees are encouraged to strive for excellence and are rewarded for their achievements. By providing individualized feedback and support, companies can create a more engaged and motivated workforce, driving productivity and growth.

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6. Reduces the need for monitoring and micromanaging:

By communicating clear objectives and results throughout the organization, companies can motivate employees to put forth their best effort towards achieving those goals. This can help to reduce the need for micromanaging and monitoring workflow at every step, freeing up managers to focus on more critical aspects of the project.

When employees have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and how their performance will be evaluated, they are more likely to take ownership of their work and strive for excellence. This can help to create a culture of accountability and engagement, where employees are empowered to make decisions and take initiative in their roles.

By providing clear guidelines and objectives, companies can also help employees to prioritize their work and focus on the most important tasks at hand. This can help to reduce the risk of wasted time and resources, ensuring that the team is working towards a common goal.

Ultimately, by aligning objectives and results throughout the organization, companies can create a more productive and efficient workforce, where employees are motivated to achieve their best work and managers are able to focus on more strategic aspects of the project.

7. Increase employee retention rates

Implementing merit increase programs as a form of reward can have a positive impact on employee retention rates. When employees are recognized for their hard work and good behavior, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated to continue performing at a high level. This can set an example for other workers who may be struggling, creating a culture of excellence and dedication throughout the organization.

Additionally, merit increase programs can help managers and supervisors identify employees who may be struggling or in need of additional support. By providing coaching or training to help employees improve their performance, managers can help to reduce stress and improve job satisfaction. This can ultimately lead to higher retention rates, as employees feel supported and valued by their employer.

Beyond that, by recognizing and rewarding top performers, merit increase programs can help to retain the best talent within the organization. This can have a positive impact on company culture and productivity, as high-performing employees set the standard for excellence and drive innovation and growth within the organization

Merit increase vs. pay raise

In the workplace, it’s important to understand the difference between a merit increase and a pay raise. A merit increase is a type of pay raise that is specifically tied to an employee’s performance at work. It’s often used as a way to reward top-performing employees within a company, while encouraging all employees to strive towards achieving company goals.

For example, let’s say Joanna and Ashley both work for the same organization and have the same job title. At the end of the year, the company evaluates each employee’s performance and determines whether they deserve a merit increase. If Joanna has performed exceptionally well and exceeded the company’s goals, she may receive a merit increase as a reward for her hard work. Meanwhile, Ashley may not receive a merit increase if her performance was not as strong.

On the other hand, a pay raise is a more general increase in salary that may not be tied to an employee’s performance. This type of increase is often spread across the board, meaning that all employees receive a similar increase regardless of their individual performance.

A merit increase is a way for companies to reward their top-performing employees and encourage all employees to work towards achieving company goals. A pay raise, on the other hand, is a more general increase in salary that may not be tied to an employee’s performance.

How much is a standard merit increase?

After being told by your boss that your good work has earned you a 3% pay bump, you may wonder if this is a good merit increase amount. In reality, the amount of a merit increase can vary significantly depending on the company and the employee. However, it is generally considered standard for companies that value their employees to award top performers with an annual increase in the range of 3% to 5%. It’s important to note that merit increases should be independent of pay raises for factors like inflation, market changes, and shifts in job demand.

It’s also interesting to note that in 2022, there has been a higher increase in employee salary compared to previous years, with an average increase amount of 4.9%, up from 4% in 2021.

Is a merit increase the same as a promotion?

While a promotion can be a form of recognition for an employee’s hard work, it doesn’t always come with a salary increase. A promotion typically involves an employee being given new job responsibilities and a higher job title, which may or may not be accompanied by a salary increase.

Similarly, a merit increase is a pay increase given to an employee based on their performance, and does not necessarily come with a promotion. It is a way for companies to reward their employees for their hard work and encourage them to continue to perform well. Merit increases are often used to retain top-performing employees and to motivate others to strive for higher levels of performance.

While promotions and merit increases can both be forms of recognition for an employee’s performance, they are not necessarily interchangeable and can have different effects on an employee’s career progression and compensation.

How do you calculate a merit increase?

To calculate a merit increase, you can use the following example:

Let’s say an employee currently earns an annual salary of $80,000 and you plan to offer a 3% merit increase. To calculate the raise, you multiply the current salary by the merit increase percentage:

$80,000 x 0.03 = $2,400 annual raise

Next, to determine the employee’s new salary and updated monthly paycheck, you add the raise to their current salary and divide by the number of paychecks per year (usually 12):

($80,000 + $2,400) / 12 = $6,866.67 new monthly salary

It’s important for HR leaders and compensation managers to collaborate and build a merit matrix to ensure that the merit increase is within budget and the position’s salary range. A merit matrix is an easy-to-read grid that displays accurate calculations and competitive salary increases, and can help guide decisions on merit increases.

Best practices for implementing merit increases

When increasing salaries based on merit, the following points should be taken into account:

Develop a clear policy

Merit pay is an effective way to incentivize employees, but it’s important to have a reliable and consistent policy in place to ensure fairness and transparency. The policy should clearly outline the metrics used to determine merit pay, the projected amount or range of increase, and the timeline for receiving the pay increase once performance goals are met. Ambiguity in the policy can make it difficult for employees to understand the criteria for a pay increase.

Managers should take responsibility for explaining the merit pay increase policy to employees during onboarding, annual performance evaluations, and whenever the policy changes. It’s important to make sure employees understand the goals they need to achieve to be eligible for merit pay and how their performance will be measured.

In addition, business leaders should communicate opportunities for growth in an employee’s current position or other positions within the company. This demonstrates a commitment to investing in employees and their professional development. By effectively communicating these opportunities, business leaders can foster a sense of loyalty and commitment among their workforce.

Listen to employee feedback

Incentive programs, including merit pay, provide an opportunity for managers to receive valuable feedback from their employees. This feedback can be used to reevaluate the merit pay policy’s goals and incentives to ensure they are challenging but achievable, and to assess if they are providing the desired results.

It is important to encourage employees to share their thoughts and opinions on the incentive program with their coordinators. Some employees may prefer a merit pay increase, while others may be more motivated by other types of benefits or prizes. By actively listening to and considering employee feedback, managers can create a merit pay increase policy that is fair, effective, and motivating for all employees. This can help to foster a positive work environment and increase employee satisfaction and engagement.

Train your leaders

Merit pay programs not only evaluate an employee’s performance but also reflect the effectiveness of an organization’s management team. The success of any company is dependent on the ability of its managers to provide support and resources to their employees.

By implementing a merit pay increase policy, managers can hold themselves accountable for their employees’ success, which can lead to a stronger sense of teamwork and collaboration. Furthermore, by acknowledging the contributions of high-performing employees, managers can foster a culture of excellence and motivate others to strive for success. Overall, a well-designed merit pay program can promote a positive work environment that benefits both employees and the organization as a whole.

Communicate changes regularly

Establishing a merit pay increase policy is just the first step in motivating and rewarding employees. To ensure that the policy is effective, managers must regularly evaluate its impact and make adjustments as needed. For instance, if many employees are falling short of their merit pay goals, the policy may need to be revised to make the goals more achievable.

It’s essential that managers communicate any policy changes to their employees and explain how the changes might affect their work. Ideally, policy updates should be discussed in person, but if that’s not feasible, video conferencing can be an effective alternative.

By monitoring the effectiveness of the merit pay policy and making changes when necessary, managers can maintain a fair and motivating system that rewards employees for their hard work and helps the organization achieve its goals.

Final thoughts : keep a consistent evaluation of the merit increase system

Regularly evaluate the merit increase system and change it when necessary. Constant grooming and pruning helps HR professionals streamline processes and add clarity to merit based metrics as they go, ensuring the system keeps up with the varying interests and characteristics of the workforce.

This also helps your company keep track of what works and what doesn’t and the context of successes and failures. Analyzing what worked and what went wrong may help improve already successful merit pay increase policies and prevent repeats of negative outcomes that arise from unsuccessful ones.

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Miriam Groom, VP Sales & Marketing
Miriam Groom

Miriam Groom is a nationally renowned Industrial & Organizational Therapist and HR Strategist specializing in strategic and innovative talent management & workforce transformation strategies that are highly employee-centric.