I recently mentioned an intriguing incentive offered to all ATP Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: ATPG) employees: Hit these ambitious targets, and we'll pay your mortgage for a year.

Of course, such a plan would simply not be possible at a larger E&P like Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK), with more than 6,000 employees, or Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN), with about 5,000. ATP only has 66 people on payroll. While large companies always find ways to shower top brass with perks, small firms are uniquely well-positioned to incentivize the entire organization.

Consider one particular program at Ultra Petroleum (NYSE: UPL). The company doesn't look small, with its $13 billion market capitalization, but it had only 76 employees at year's end. Three years ago, Ultra initiated its "Best in Class" incentive compensation program. If the company met or exceeded targets based on all-in finding costs and full-cycle economics, all employees would receive fat stock awards. Sure enough, the company blew the doors off, and the plan is now paying out more than $250,000 in share awards per employee.

Granted, few industries are as lucrative on a per-head basis as upstream energy. But this is still a terrific example of the huge potential vitality of small companies, given the proper employee incentive structures.

Chesapeake is an Inside Value selection. Try any of our newsletters free for 30 days. How's that for an incentive?

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.