CEO Bonus Plans: And How to Fix Them

66 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2011 Last revised: 20 Nov 2011

Kevin J. Murphy

University of Southern California - Marshall School of Business; USC Gould School of Law

Michael C. Jensen

Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc.; Harvard Business School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Date Written: November 19, 2011


Almost all CEO and executive bonus plans have serious design flaws that limit their benefits dramatically. Such poorly designed executive bonus plans destroy value by providing incentives to manipulate the timing of earnings, mislead the board about organizational capabilities, take on excessive (or insufficient) risk, forgo profitable projects, and ignore the cost of capital. We describe the causes of the problems associated with widely prevalent executive bonus plans, and offer our recommendations for fixing them. We focus on choosing the right performance measure, determining how performance thresholds, targets, or benchmarks are set, and defining the pay-performance relation and how the relation changes over time. Finally we examine the role of banking bonuses in the recent financial crisis. While cultural and performance measurement issues certainly played a role in the recent crisis we find little or no evidence that banking bonuses per se were a major contributing factor.

Keywords: Executive Compensation, CEO Pay, Incentives, Governance, non-Equity Pay, Banking Bonus Plans

JEL Classification: G34, J33, M12, M52

Suggested Citation

Murphy, Kevin J. and Jensen, Michael C., CEO Bonus Plans: And How to Fix Them (November 19, 2011). Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper 12-022; Marshall School of Business Working Paper No. FBE 02-11. Available at SSRN: or

Kevin J. Murphy

University of Southern California - Marshall School of Business ( email )

BRI 308, MC 0804
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0804
United States
213-740-6553 (Phone)
213-740-6650 (Fax)

USC Gould School of Law

699 Exposition Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90089
United States

Michael C. Jensen (Contact Author)

Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc. ( email )

7858 Sanderling Road
Sarasota, FL 34242
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305 675-3166 (Fax)


Harvard Business School ( email )

Soldiers Field
Negotiations, Organizations & Markets
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305-675-3166 (Fax)


National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

B-1050 Brussels

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