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Pay Structures Explained

A pay structure refers to the system and policies a company uses to determine employee compensation. It includes the various components that make up an employee's total remuneration package.

How should companies determine the appropriate compensation package for their employees? With rising costs and the need to attract skilled talent, designing an optimal pay structure is more important than ever. But what exactly is a pay structure, and what should organizations consider when developing one?

A pay structure refers to the various elements that make up an employee’s total remuneration. This includes base pay, incentives, benefits, and equity compensation. According to WorldatWork’s 2019 Salary Budget Survey, the average pay structure consists of:

  • 70% fixed base salary
  • 15% short-term incentives
  • 15% long-term incentives and benefits

But every company’s pay structure is unique. The blend of pay components should align with the organization’s talent strategy and business objectives.

In this article, we will explore what comprises a pay structure, different pay structure models, and key considerations when designing and managing pay. Read on to learn how you can leverage your pay structure to attract top talent and drive optimal organizational outcomes.

What is a Pay Structure?

pay structure refers to the system and policies a company uses to determine employee compensation. It includes the various components that make up an employee’s total remuneration package, setting out the framework for how employees are paid.

When designing a pay structure, companies need to consider both external market factors and internal equity. The pay structure impacts a company’s ability to attract, motivate and retain top talent. It also affects employee engagement and satisfaction.

Having a clearly defined and thoughtful pay structure is crucial for any organization. The various pay components should align with the company’s business strategy, culture and desired talent profile. Companies need to periodically review and adjust their pay structures to remain competitive.

Some key elements to consider when developing a pay structure include:

  • Base salary ranges
  • Short-term incentives like bonuses
  • Long-term incentives like stock options
  • Benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans

The pay structure should be transparent and well-communicated to employees. When implemented effectively, it can help boost employee performance, positive culture and overall success for the business.

What are the Elements of a Pay Structure?

There are several components that comprise an employee pay structure. The main elements include:

Base Salary

The base salary provides guaranteed pay for performing job responsibilities. It is the fixed, recurring component that forms the foundation of the pay structure. Companies determine appropriate base salary ranges for each position based on:

  • The role’s scope and responsibilities
  • Required qualifications and skills
  • The market value of the role is based on supply and demand
  • Internal equity with other roles
  • Company pay bands and budgets

Base pay usually comprises the largest portion of an employee’s total compensation package.


Performance bonuses, commissions and other incentive pay are provided in addition to base pay. These are tied to performance goals at the individual, team or organization level. Common types of incentives include:

  • Individual performance bonuses for meeting KPIs
  • Team bonuses for achieving revenue or other targets
  • Organization-wide profit-sharing plans
  • Sales commissions based on business generated

Incentives help motivate employees and align their focus with the company’s strategic priorities. They reward excellent performance.


Benefits provide additional value beyond take-home pay. Standard benefits often include:

  • Health insurance to cover medical expenses
  • Retirement plans like 401Ks or pensions
  • Paid time off including vacation, sick days and holidays

Offering a competitive benefits package is key for attracting and retaining top talent. Benefits also promote employee wellness and work-life balance.

What are the Different Types of Pay Structures?

There are several common pay structure models that companies can choose from. Each has its own advantages and suitability depending on the organization’s size, industry, talent needs and other factors.

Hourly Wages

In an hourly wage structure, employees are paid a fixed hourly rate for each hour worked. This model is common for roles like retail associates, restaurant servers, customer service reps and other frontline jobs.

Hourly pay provides flexibility as pay automatically fluctuates based on hours worked. It aligns pay with effort. However, hourly workers may need to work multiple jobs to earn higher pay.


In a salary pay structure, employees receive a fixed amount per pay period regardless of hours worked. Salaried roles often include managers, executives, professionals and office staff.

Salary structures provide income stability for employees. However, employers must track hours to ensure compliance with labour laws regarding overtime.

Piece Rate/Per Item

In a piece rate model, workers are paid a fixed rate for each unit produced or action performed. This approach is common in manufacturing, construction and other project-based jobs.

Piece rate pay incentivizes employee productivity. However, quality of work may be sacrificed for quantity. Safeguards need to be in place to prevent excessive overtime or safety issues.

Selecting the appropriate pay structure depends on the company’s priorities, culture and workforce considerations. Many combine multiple approaches, such as salary plus incentives.

What Factors Should You Consider When Designing a Pay Structure?

When creating a pay structure, companies need to consider both internal equity and external market competitiveness. Other key factors include:

Internal Equity

Internal equity looks at the relative pay differences between jobs within the organization. Jobs are ranked based on criteria like:

  • Education and experience requirements
  • Level of responsibility
  • Working conditions
  • Required skill and effort

Pay levels should be fair and consistent with these rankings. Large pay gaps between roles that are close in value can hurt morale.

External Competitiveness

Companies also need to research pay data for benchmark jobs in their industry. Competitive compensation is key for attracting skilled talent.

Pay structures should align with the relevant labour market. Firms must keep pace with changes in average pay to remain attractive to job seekers.


Pay structures must adhere to all applicable labour laws and regulations. These include minimum wage, overtime pay, non-discrimination rules and pay transparency requirements.

Consulting legal counsel helps ensure pay structure compliance. Firms should also perform periodic audits.

An optimal pay structure aligns with business needs while also being fair, competitive, incentivizing and legally compliant. Companies should regularly review their pay structure and make adjustments as required.

Key Takeaways

A competitive and well-designed pay structure is a strategic investment in human capital for any organization. Aligning pay with evolving business needs and market trends can help attract and retain skilled talent. With a thoughtful approach, companies can use their pay structure to motivate performance, boost employee satisfaction, and ultimately drive success.

By taking the time to get pay structure elements right, organizations can leverage compensation as a key driver of employee excellence and organizational achievement. Conduct periodic reviews and adjustments to keep pay structures relevant. When managed effectively, your pay systems can become a true competitive advantage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the main components of a pay structure?

The main elements of a pay structure include base salary, incentives/bonuses, and benefits. Base salary provides guaranteed pay, incentives reward performance, and benefits add value.

How do companies determine the appropriate base salary for a role?

Companies research market pay rates for benchmark jobs. They also consider internal equity with other roles, the position’s responsibilities, and company pay bands.

What are some common incentive pay models?

Popular incentive plans include individual or team performance bonuses, sales commissions, profit sharing, and spot bonuses for special achievements.

Why are benefits an important part of compensation?

Benefits like health insurance, retirement plans, and paid time off promote work-life balance, financial security, and overall employee well-being.

What industries typically use an hourly wage pay structure?

Hourly pay is common for retail, food service, customer service, administrative support, and manufacturing roles. It aligns pay with hours worked.

What are some key considerations when designing a pay structure?

Important factors include internal equity, external competitiveness, labour regulations, company culture and strategy, and employee motivation.

How often should organizations review their pay structures?

Experts recommend conducting a pay structure review annually to ensure pay remains fair and competitive. More frequent reviews may be needed in high-turnover industries.

What are some signs that a pay structure needs adjustment?

Indicators include difficulty attracting or retaining talent, employee concerns about pay fairness, changes in regulations, or shifts in market pay rates.

How can companies communicate pay structure changes?

Clear communication via meetings, memos, FAQs, and management training helps ensure proper understanding and consistent implementation.

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