Merit Increases: What Are They? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Nov. 16, 2020

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Rewarding employees for outstanding performance is a good strategy for retaining top talent and motivating others. One way that firms incentivize quality performance is by offering merit increases. But companies can’t grant merit increases willy-nilly. Without a proper plan in place, employees can become frustrated with a system that doesn’t clearly define a path to a bigger paycheck.

We’ll go over precisely what constitutes a merit increase and how to position yourself to earn a sizeable pay bump.

What Is a Merit Increase?

A merit increase is a pay raise that an employer gives to employees based on an objective measure of performance over a set period. Companies can award merit increases annually or as a direct response to phenomenal work. A common way to dole out merit increases is by giving all employees an incremental raise based on performance, with top talent receiving the highest percentage raise. The idea is to reward the most productive, highest-performing workers and motivate others to improve.

Merit pay, also known as pay-for-performance, is usually part of a more extensive budget process. Organizations will set aside a merit pool for the fiscal year that will support pay raises. A company may set aside enough to give every employee an average merit increase of 3% in a typical situation. Then, managers can allocate the money in the pool to employees based on their performance, with top-performers earning more than a 3% raise and sub-par employees receiving less than a 3% raise or no raise at all.

Notably, the percentage raise an employee receives for a merit increase is not solely based on performance. One factor that comes into play is the employee’s current salary relative to the salary range an employer offers for a given position. So an employee who earns compensation on the low end of that range and exceeds performance expectations can receive a more significant merit increase than an exceptional employee whose salary is already on the high end of that range.

Suppose a company wants to reward an exceptional employee whose salary is already at the maximum for their position. In that case, they can award a bonus as a different form of merit pay. On the flip-side, an underperforming employee who is already “overpaid” may not receive any merit increase or bonus at all. In other words, don’t be bummed if you don’t receive as significant a merit increase as you think is warranted – you might already be near the top salary someone in your position can earn, based on strict pay guidelines set out by HR.

Merit increases are a superb way to reward the best employees and incentivize everyone to do their best work. However, they only work if a company sets clear metrics for evaluating performance.

Companies should start with their big-picture goals, then break those down into departmental objectives. Department heads can then communicate how they will measure performance and what employees can do to earn a merit increase. This process has three major requirements to be effective and successful:

  • Transparent. Employees need to know exactly what criteria a company uses to evaluate worker performance and determine merit increases. Without transparency, employees can become confused about how best to prioritize their tasks in order to earn a merit increase.

  • Standardized. Management needs to come up with a regimented system for merit increases. With the process standardized, employees will see a reliable and straightforward path toward earning a merit increase.

  • Continuous. An annual performance review is not frequent enough to allow employees to make adjustments. Employers need to offer ongoing feedback so employees can alter their priorities and align them with broader company goals.

What Is a Standard Merit Increase?

Viewed broadly, the average merit increase that firms offer is around 3%. The size of your merit increase may depend on which department you work in and how key that department is for achieving the company’s broader goals. An employee’s current salary relative to the salary range for that position is also a factor. A worker whose wage is already maxed out may receive a bonus instead of a merit increase. You can ask a company you’re interviewing with or already work for how they handle merit increases.

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The data reveals a sizeable difference in merit increases between below-average workers and top-performers. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), using data from consultancy Willis Towers Watson and WorldAtWork’s salary budget survey, found that 90% of organizations use individual performance ratings to determine salary adjustments. The study determined that companies rated an average of 11.7% of their employees the highest possible rating, 33.1% an above-average rating, 58.2% an average rating, and 5.2% a below-average rating.

Employees who received the highest possible rating received an average salary increase of 4.6%. Those with an above-average rating got a 3.6% bump, average rated employees received a 2.7% increase, and below-average employees received a 0.7% salary increase. In other words, top performers received an average raise of 70% larger than employees rated as average.

If your company offers smaller merit increases than those given above, don’t immediately panic and call shenanigans. Organizations have several ways to reward excellent performance, like providing extra perks, such as more paid vacation time or a company car. And for employees who are salary-capped, a bonus can function as a once-off monetary reward that is as valuable as a merit increase.

Merit Increase vs. Pay Raise

Merit increases are a type of pay raise that employees only earn if they meet specific criteria. They rely on managers and team leaders to evaluate the performance of employees. This evaluation clearly sets them apart from Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs), which are not impacted by a worker’s performance at all but by the inflation rate. It also differentiates merit increases from arbitrary pay raises based on an employee’s duration at the company.

While companies have some flexibility in awarding merit increases, the metrics and requirements the company sets out determine the size of an employee’s raise. This system helps firms pay their workers a competitive wage based on their market value and internal value.

Ultimately, employers need to publicly state their goals and communicate the metrics by which they will measure each employee’s performance. Employees need to understand that significant merit increases will not be granted to average or below-average workers so that they are adequately motivated to work at their highest level.

So while companies typically grant annual pay raises and COLAs regardless of performance, merit increases are only awarded to employees who meet or exceed expectations in their position, which should ultimately promote the firm’s goals as a whole. Merit increases create a culture of healthy competition, increasing retention of top employees, and contributing to a more robust workforce.

How to Get a Merit Increase

Hard work pays off, so working to your fullest potential is the first step in earning a substantial merit increase. In conjunction with hard work, follow these steps to maximize your chances of a merit increase.

  • Study the rules. You can learn about your company’s policies for merit increases in your employee handbook or through a meeting with your manager or an HR rep. Understanding what expectations your company and department have set for your performance is a crucial step in setting yourself up for a merit increase.

  • Look back. When determining how best to prioritize your time and effort, it’s a good idea to review your past feedback. You can see what metrics you’re hitting and where you can improve, and how those metrics relate to company guidelines for merit increases. Then, you can align your goals with those set out in the guidelines.

  • Keep track of your excellence. While a company should have methods for measuring success, it can’t hurt to keep a personal account of your accomplishments. You are the best person to advocate for yourself, so keep track of your achievements and mention them often enough that your supervisors can’t fail to notice. That way, when it comes time to review your performance, your manager will already have your awesomeness fresh in his or her mind.

  • Watch competitors. One way to ensure that your company’s structure for merit increases is fair and competitive is to watch how their competitors do things. If you find that you are being offered lower raises (by percentage) than competitors, then you can use that information to advocate for structural changes (or just a bigger raise for yourself, if you’re a top-performer). If a bigger raise isn’t in the offing, you can also use this information to start applying to companies that offer more competitive benefits.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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