Commission pay is synonymous with outside sales positions, but are there other possibilities of commission pay beyond reaching sales quotas?
Commission Pay: The Definition
Commission pay is any money paid to an employee for the sale of a product or a service on behalf of their employer. Commission pay can a set percentage of sales or a flat dollar amount based on sales volume. The most common commission structures are:
- Base salary + commission. These employees often receive a base salary that is lower than market rate for their positions, with the understanding that this salary will be supplemented through commission earning opportunities. Example: loan officer.
- Straight commission. These employees do not have the “safety net” of a base salary. Here, all compensation comes from commissions. This structure does best with seasoned sales professionals and for positions that qualify as exempt under the Department of Labor’s Outside Sales Exemption. Example: real estate agent.
- Draw against future commission. This commission structure is a hybrid of the two described above. A minimum base salary is guaranteed each pay period, but that base salary is drawn against future commissions. Example: car sales.
Commission Pay: The Fine Print
Commission pay is not attractive to everyone. It adds an element of uncertainty to an employee’s income that can be off-putting to the risk adverse or sales professionals who are new to their careers. Employers should keep attuned to their market and to those companies they compete with for staff to gauge the compensation design that will attract the most qualified and promising employees and really grow their business.
Additionally, members of your sales teams employed in positions that do not qualify for the DOL’s sales exemptions must receive the equivalent of at least minimum wage for all hours worked in each pay period and overtime for all hours greater than 40 in a work week.
There is, however, some flexibility with the timing of commission payments. Commission can be paid in conjunction with an employee’s base salary (if applicable) or at a completely separate time. For example, it is perfectly legal for an employee to receive her salary bi-weekly and her commission payments monthly.
Commission Pay: The Possibilities
Commission pay is an effective incentive to increase productivity and the rate of a company’s growth, but unless you are managing a team of outside sales professionals, it likely not a tool in your current incentive program. But should it be? Possibly.
The Retail Exemption. The Department of Labor allows commission for retail employees through its Retail Exemption, an exemption that can free qualified employers from their overtime rate obligations if their retail employees have sufficient commission earnings. With this exemption, the earnings of non-exempt employees can be driven by their sales numbers through a legally vetted method that will not increase their overtime pay rate.
For purposes of this exemption, qualified employers are:
- retail and service establishments where 75% of the annual dollar volume comes from the sale of goods and/or services
- the company must be in a recognized retail sales or services industry
- resale establishments do not qualify
Taking the long view. Another option is a commission program designed to recognize contributions beyond monthly sales quotas, such as:
- teamwork that supports company sales goals
- customer satisfaction
- lead generation
These programs reward employees for creating an atmosphere where future and repeat business become reliable sources of company income.
Commission vs. profit sharing. Many employers look for ways to incentivize employees to meet or exceed company sales goals, but not all have employees who meet the traditional definition of sales. For these companies, a profit sharing plan might be a good compromise. Both commission and profit sharing programs are designed to motivate employees for their efforts in reaching sales and business growth goals. This, however, is where the similarities end.
- Commission plans are a significant part of a sales employee’s compensation, whereas a profit sharing plan is generally pain in addition to a full market rate salary.
- Commission payments are generally paid out monthly to enforce the strong connection between reaching sales goals and increasing income, whereas profit sharing plans are generally paid out once a year.
- Commission programs are designed as incentives for sales professionals, whereas profit sharing programs generally reward all employees to some degree.
As labor markets continue to tighten, employers must utilize every tool in their arsenal to recruit and retain the best and the brightest. Although commission programs are – and will continue to be -synonymous with outside sales positions, companies may need to embrace some out-of-the-box ideas to keep actual growth in line with their goals. Adding a commission or commission-like element for all employees can be an appropriate move for companies that believe every job and every employee impacts their bottom line.
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This article does not constitute legal advice and there are subtle variations in employment law as it pertains to this topic, depending on where your business operates. It is strongly suggested you seek consultation or legal counsel before making decisions about policies.