Businesses need a stronger understanding of their business model before setting bonus policy

South Africa has the fourth-most meritocratic bonus system in the world, according to a global poll of 6,500 financial decision makers carried out by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). However, while 72% of South African finance professionals feel that bonuses are an excellent way to motivate staff and guarantee long-term business success, 46% alsofelt awarding bonuses based on performance in one area of peoples’ responsibilities encourages an over-focus on that while devoting less attention to other activities. CIMA is therefore calling for bonus systems to be designed to encourage long-term success rather than only short-term performance.

Of respondents whose companies operate a bonus scheme, over a quarter (27%) of South African finance professionals feel bonuses for top earners – including salespeople, fund managers board members and more – are undeserved. As a result, CIMA is calling for bonuses to be rethought so they reward work which can be shown to benefit an organisation’s full business model in both the short and the long terms.

Professor Wim A Van der Stede, CIMA Professor of Accounting & Financial Management, said: “These findings reaffirm some well-known issues of incentives related to a narrow focus on what is rewarded and other myopic behaviors. But they also suggest that perceptions of ‘unjustified’ bonuses, whether stemming from ineffective incentive designs or not, can trigger resentment and undermine employee engagement and motivation. This hurts performance, exacerbates myopia and corrodes culture. Designing effective incentive systems is hard, yet incentives that may be fair may not look fair – a challenge that touches on the issue of transparency as well as the question of both how and howmuch to incentivise.”

Badibanga Promesse, Regional Vice President: Africa, commented: “Bonuses are a trust issue as much as a financial issue. If customers and stakeholders perceive a company to be paying exorbitant sums to its employees, it will effect that company’s reputation and erode the trust in which they are held. This is something we saw time and again following the financial crisis.

“So, boards need to think carefully about their bonus structure and this applies to all levels within the business. Current schemes often only focus on ‘hard indicators’ such as short-term revenue, but they should also seek to reward evidence the employee is helping the organisation plan and build for the long term. As a bare minimum, they need to ensure incentives are rooted in a firm understanding of the business model and are aligned to long-term business success. That’s why our new framework to support the understanding of boards of their business models is so important, focusing on how value is shared – what is reinvested, paid in taxes, and distributed to staff and investors. In this context they should go further, looking at the size of bonuses and the differential between the highest and lowest earners, ensuring both are justifiable to wider stakeholders. Doing so is a big step towards building better businesses, trusted by society.”

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