What is total compensation? How does it differ from salary?

Total compensation

What is total compensation?

Total compensation, or an employee’s compensation package, refers to the comprehensive strategy for valuing all forms of employee remuneration from the employer. In simple terms, total compensation quantifies the full value of an employee's work, recognizing that employee benefits extend beyond their salary. 

To hire and retain the best talent, employers should include the overall value of all perks and benefits in their offers to new staff, including non-cash benefits such as stock options, education reimbursement, company vehicles, or subsidized housing, and in their compensation statements to existing staff.

Total compensation comprises various elements, and while not all are usually present in every job, most salaried positions typically include several of the following:

  • Base salary: Also called base pay, this is typically a fixed amount that represents the gross cash component that the employee receives. This figure varies, often defined within a salary range, and may be calculated on an hourly rate or an annual basis, depending on the job type.
  • Bonus pay: This includes sign-on bonuses, year-end bonuses, or bonuses tied to individual or company achievements. Bonuses are reflected in the paycheck at the end of each pay period and contribute to total compensation.
  • Commissions: Most common in sales roles, commissions are variable amounts earned based on an individual's meeting specific performance targets.
  • Tips: A staple of service-related fields in many countries, these are usually relatively small amounts the employee receives directly from customers.
  • Employee benefits: Many companies offer benefits such as health insurance, dental and vision, or retirement plans.
  • Stock options: Staff receive stock options as part of their bonus structure or to purchase the stock at a discount.
  • Profit sharing: Some companies distribute a portion of their profits to their employees, which helps to align the company's interests with those of each individual, as everyone works toward the same goal.
  • Paid time off (PTO): This includes vacation days, sick leave, and public holidays.
  • Tuition assistance: Some organizations offer to financially help their staff continue their education or pay off student debt as part of their overall compensation package.
  • Relocation assistance: Some companies may help cover the costs relating to relocating, including travel, moving services and, when applicable, immigration fees.

Why is total compensation important?

Providing employees with a total compensation statement offers several advantages to both the organization and its employees.

Your compensation philosophy should outline all the various forms of value your staff receives in addition to their base pay. A comprehensive total compensation package demonstrates the organization's commitment to its employees' well-being and professional growth. This is vital for attracting and retaining top talent, as potential hires often consider the overall value of the compensation package, not just the base salary.

Over time, effectively communicating the full scope of compensation can improve the organization's reputation as an excellent place to work, making it a more attractive employer in the competitive job market. 

Salary vs. total compensation: What is the difference?

An employee’s annual salary typically refers to the fixed earnings that an employee expects to receive, not accounting for additional compensation such as bonuses, commissions, overtime, or other benefits. It is usually expressed as a gross, pre-tax amount from which income taxes are deducted before the net salary is deposited into an employee's bank account.

On the other hand, total compensation encompasses all forms of payment an employee receives. This includes direct earnings like base salary, overtime, bonuses, commissions, and indirect compensation such as employer contributions to retirement funds, health benefits, paid time off, and life and disability insurance. Total compensation might also extend to non-cash benefits like stock options, tuition assistance, gym memberships, childcare support, and employee discounts on products. These elements together illustrate the comprehensive value an employee receives from their employer beyond their base pay.

How to calculate total compensation

Determining an employee’s total compensation involves quantifying all financial and non-financial benefits they receive from their employer.

To calculate total compensation:

  1. Sum monetary components: Combine base salary, bonuses, overtime, and commissions.
  2. Estimate benefits costs: Calculate the employer's contributions to benefits like insurance premiums and retirement plans.
  3. Include additional incentives: Factor in any special monetary incentives or allowances provided to the employee.
  4. Add non-cash benefits: Incorporate the value of stock options, education reimbursements, and company-provided services, all valued at market rates.
  5. Account for long-term incentives and unique rewards: Consider equity-based compensation and any unique company-specific rewards.
  6. Document and track: Monitor each element throughout the year to ensure accuracy and compliance with local laws. Doing so is vital for planning budgetary expenses and maintaining fair, competitive compensation practices.

Here's a hypothetical example:

  • Direct compensation: The employee's base salary is $80,000, with an additional $5,000 from overtime and a $10,000 annual bonus, totaling $95,000.
  • Indirect compensation: The employer contributes $8,000 toward health insurance, $6,000 to retirement plans, and $2,000 for paid time off, amounting to $16,000.
  • Non-cash benefits: This includes stock options valued at $4,000, educational reimbursements of $2,000, and a company car worth $3,000 per year, adding up to $9,000.
  • Long-term incentives: This assumes an initial equity vesting worth $5,000, which becomes available after meeting specific performance or seniority criteria.

The employee's total compensation package is $125,000, based on salary, bonuses, benefits, and long-term incentives.

Investing in your team is investing in success 

The Oyster platform helps you build compliant and competitive compensation packages for hiring talent internationally. Specializing in salaries, equity, and benefits in more than 180 countries, Oyster eliminates the need for businesses to establish local entities or navigate regional benefits complexities.

Discover how Oyster's Total Rewards can help you attract and retain top talent as you tap into a global talent pool, grow into new markets, and expand beyond borders.

About Oyster

Oyster is a global employment platform designed to enable visionary HR leaders to find, hire, pay, manage, develop, and take care of a thriving distributed workforce. Oyster lets growing companies give valued international team members the experience they deserve, without the usual headaches and expense.

Oyster enables hiring anywhere in the world—with reliable, compliant payroll, and great local benefits and perks.