Write a Compensation Plan

As a business owner, you will budget for salaries by writing a compensation plan. The purpose of the plan is to pay your employees an adequate salary without paying too much. Since salaries make up a large percentage of a business’ expenses, you’ll get in trouble if you don’t carefully plan what to pay your staff. Research salaries for comparable positions at other businesses and then draft a compensation plan. You’ll need to consider benefits and possible incentives.[1] When your business grows, you’ll need to hire new staff and possibly add to your compensation plan.


Developing a Plan

  1. Draft a list of employee positions. Sit down and list out all of the employees you will need to run your business. If you have no idea, then reach out to another business owner in your industry and ask.
    • For example, you might need one part-time receptionist, a personal assistant, and two full-time associates.
    • Be as comprehensive as possible. If you find out you need to add staff, then you’ll need to find the money to pay this person. You won’t be able to reduce your current employees’ compensation to pay for them.
  2. Write job descriptions. You need to write out a description of a job so that you can find salaries of comparable jobs. For example, what you think a receptionist might do could be what most businesses have personal assistants do. You want to pay a reasonable salary based on job requirements and skills, not title. A proper job description should include the following:[2]
    • job title
    • day-to-day responsibilities, such as “answers the phones and forwards caller to appropriate personnel”
    • educational experience (high school or GED, associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, etc.)
    • years of required experience
    • soft skills, such as the ability to accept criticism and work as part of a team
  3. Research market compensation. You should pay a competitive salary so that you don’t lose employees. However, you need to decide whether you will pay above market salaries in order to attract top talent.[3] Before you can make that decision, you should research salaries for comparable jobs. Take out your job description and see how much other businesses pay people for comparable employees. You can research in the following ways:
    • Use websites to check salaries in your area. You can use PayScale, Indeed.com, Glassdoor, or Salary.com.
    • Talk to other business owners. You can ask other owners what they pay their staff.
    • Search job advertisements. The ad should list the starting salary range for each position, which will give you some idea of the prevailing rate. Make sure the employer is of similar size.
  4. Budget for employee overtime. Employee overtime is generally compensated at 1.5 times the employee’s regular base rate of pay. Accordingly, you should decide whether you’ll have employees work overtime, and which ones. You’ll need to account for this amount of money.
    • It’s not true that salaried employees are automatically exempt from the overtime laws. Instead, an employee must earn at least $455 a week in salary to be exempt. They must also do work that is managerial or supervisory in nature, requires high-level business decisions, or requires an advanced degree.[4]
    • Accordingly, you can’t budget your secretary for a salary of $28,000 and expect them to work 50 hours a week without paying overtime.
  5. Consider whether to offer incentives. Base pay is only part of a compensation package. Incentives, such as bonuses, help you retain top performers. They also create incentives for employees to give above-average performance. Incentives can be paid in cash, stock, or benefits.[5] Carefully consider whether you will offer incentives to employees. Incentives don’t work in all industries.
    • Giving an annual performance bonus might work at a company that is mostly salary-based. However, it probably won’t work at places such as cafes or retail stores where there is high employee turnover.[6]
    • Commissions as a percentage of sales can work at companies where profits per sale range widely. However, they don’t work where sales representatives do not have the same opportunities.
    • Commissions as a set amount probably won’t work at companies where sales are unstable.
    • Weekly or monthly bonus contests work better at jobs where staff is mostly paid by the hour. They work less well at salary-based businesses.
    • Remember you don’t have to adopt an incentives scheme right off. You can wait until your business is up and running.
  6. Identify which benefits you’ll provide.[7] Compensation also includes fringe benefits. You should research what are standard benefits in your industry. Many businesses offer the following:
    • health insurance
    • dental insurance
    • vision insurance
    • life insurance
    • short-term disability insurance
    • sick leave
    • annual (vacation) leave
  7. Determine the costs of benefits.[8] Discuss health insurance and other benefits with an insurance broker or agent, which you can find in your Yellow Pages. You can also use the SHOP marketplace, which is a government website set up to help small businesses: https://www.healthcare.gov/small-businesses/employers/.
    • Alternately, you can talk to a Professional Employer Organization (PEO).[9] A PEO allows you to outsource certain management tasks, such as providing benefits. Search for PEOs online.
  8. Adjust your compensation plan to reflect your goals. You should analyze your company’s short-term and long-term goals, which will influence your compensation plan.[10] For example, you might be focused on growing your company aggressively in the short-term. If so, you might want to adopt incentives to drive growth.
    • By contrast, you might want to retain employees for as long as possible. If so, you can offer above-market pay with a strong retirement benefit. This might entice employees to stay with you for a long time.
  9. Add up your expected compensation. This can be fairly easy if you are disallowing overtime. Simply add up the expected compensation for each employee. Don’t forget the cost of benefits.
    • For example, if you have six employees being paid $25,000 per year, then you have $150,000 in base compensation. If benefits are 20% of base pay, then you have $180,000 in total compensation.
    • Things can get a little more complicated if you intend to hire employees using compensation as a range. For example, you might expect to pay $30,000-35,000 for someone. Add up the total compensation if you paid everyone the minimum, and calculate total compensation if you paid everyone the maximum.
  10. Compare expected compensation to your budget. You can’t overspend on compensation. If you do, then you’ll become insolvent and have to close up shop. Accordingly, you should compare your expected compensation with what you can afford.
    • You might need to offer low compensation, especially if you are a new business without much cash flow. However, you could include performance-based compensation so that you can reward employees if business takes off.
    • Meet with an accountant if you don’t know how to free up the money to pay for the employees that you need. You can get a referral to an accountant from another business owner, your local Chamber of Commerce, or your state’s accounting society.[11]
  11. Consult with a lawyer. Your compensation plan must follow federal, state, and local laws. For example, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires that you pay at least a minimum wage. It also requires 1.5 time in overtime compensation for each hour worked over 40 in a week.[12]
    • State and local laws can supplement federal law. For example, your city might have a much higher minimum wage.
    • Find a Choose a Business Attorney by contacting your local or state bar association. Ask for a referral and schedule a consultation.

Drafting the Compensation Plan

  1. List the job descriptions. You can list the job descriptions at the start of the document. However, it’s probably better to simply refer people to an Appendix, where you will collect all job descriptions.[13]
    • You can write something like: “Positions/Titles and Job Functions. See Attachment A.”
  2. State each job’s rate of pay. Based on your research, set a salary range for each job. Type each job classification and the salary range. For example, the job of receptionist might pay $23,000-27,000 annually or $11.00-13.25 per hour.[14]
    • Generally, new hires will be paid toward the low end of your range. However, you can pay on the higher end depending on someone’s experience or whether you really want them.
  3. Create pay grades for each classification. Pay grades can start with beginner, and progress through intermediate, junior, and senior levels.[15] People in higher grades will be paid more. Using pay grades allows you to reward excellent employees.
    • Alternately, you could “steps” within each job classification. You can use steps as a way for salaries to keep pace with inflation. For example, a starting salary might be $25,000. In the second year, you might want to increase by 3% to keep up with inflation.
    • Steps can be used when people progress simply based on the amount of time they’ve been at the company instead of based on performance.
  4. Set hours of work. A compensation plan should also identify the hours you anticipate employees working. For example, you might have your receptionist work 9:00-6:00 with an hour unpaid lunch.[16]
    • If you have a lot of employees, you can group them and set hours for the group.
  5. Describe your fringe benefits. Explain in detail the benefits your organization will provide to employees. Break out each benefit you provide and offer an individual explanation of each benefit.
    • For example, if you offer overtime, you can write: “Nonexempt employees will be paid overtime compensation in accordance with the FLSA. They will receive overtime pay for each hour worked in excess of 40 in a workweek at the rate of one and a half times their regular rate of pay.”[17]
    • For sick leave, you can write: “Employees will earn 10 days of sick leave credit each year. At the end of the year, any unused sick leave will be carried over to the next year. However, no employee may carry more than 30 days of sick leave. Any excess sick leave earned will be converted to annual leave, at a rate of two sick days to one day of annual leave.”
    • For health benefits, you can write, “Company will pay 60% of the health insurance costs for each employee.”
  6. Describe the process for giving raises. Your compensation plan should lay out the policy for determining whether to pay a raise and calculating how much. You’ll want to follow this plan so that you don’t give out too much (or too little) in raises.
    • For example, you should first review your job descriptions and salary ranges to make sure they are still accurate. If they aren’t, you might need to give everyone a raise.
    • Generally, a pay raise should be a bump of 5% or less. It is rare to give 10% or more, unless you are also promoting someone.[18]
  7. Provide for periodic review of your plan. To remain competitive, you should participate in compensation surveys or perform your own.[19] Make sure your compensation plan states that you will regularly review survey data to assure that your compensation is in line with the market.

Adding New Jobs to Your Compensation Plan

  1. Determine if you can afford a new employee. Before advertising, analyze whether you can afford to bring someone onto the company. For example, you might decide you want to hire an in-house auditor or attorney. Look at your budget and do basic online research to see how much you’ll have to pay the person.
    • Consider other options, such as using a temp agency or hiring an independent contractor.[20] Using a temp agency, for example, can make the costs predictable.
    • If you’re hiring a new person to work in an established job classification, then the employee should be paid according to the existing classification. Look at your existing job classifications and see if the new employee could fit into one.
  2. Write a job description for the new position. You need a job description to advertise. You’ll also need one when you research comparable market salaries. Sit down and write out a draft of the job description.
    • Circulate the description to appropriate managers and others in your business. Ask them to revise your job description.
    • As your business grows, other employees will know more about staffing needs. Have meetings as necessary to hammer out what you are looking for in a new employee.
    • You may also want to create a compensation committee that will create a job description and research comparable salaries.
  3. Compare expected compensation to other employees. When you add a new employee, you can’t forget what you are paying your current employees. They may be miffed if you pay someone new a much larger salary than what they are receiving. Accordingly, compare salaries so that they are internally fair.[21]
    • You may need to increase your current employee’s compensation in order to make them comparable to the salary of the new employee.
  4. Revise your compensation plan. You’ll need to add the new classification to your compensation plan. If you revised other classifications, then make those revisions as well. You want your plan to be accurate.
    • Even if you don't add a new classification, you should revise your plan if information becomes outdated.


  • If any of your employees work remotely in a different state, you may be required to register in that state to be able to withhold and pay taxes on their behalf. Make sure you research these costs before completing your compensation plan.[22]