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November 25, 2009

Why Should I Bother Staying?

Blog cartoon 11-25-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

There are some companies that were truly broke that decided they couldn’t give their workers cost-of-living adjustments; and then there were those companies that were struggling, but could have afforded (with a little executive-level sacrifice) to give their employees a financial boost, but chose not to. That choice may soon (if there’s poetic justice) come home to roost, as the cheapness they thought they could get away with (so as to not shave off a million from their already-multi-million dollar salaries) results in the loss of the talent they depend on to carry out their plans.

What’s your company doing about it?  I was just talking the other day with a friend who lamented with me the stupidity of companies that equate incentive and motivation strategies with slacking off. They seem to believe you can’t be working if you’re enjoying yourself. At one company, for instance, workers need to make up for time out of the office that they spend traveling on behalf of the company. The problem is the trips weren’t directly related to the worker’s primary job. They were great career opportunities that afforded the person a chance to explore the world, and, so, therefore, have to be paid for somehow (whether in vacation time or extra time working) lest they—gasp—be seen as incentives. Would it be the end of the world to allow a motivated, high-achieving employee to take advantage of a great work-related opportunity to travel without worrying it will be interpreted as an incentive?  You laugh at this extreme example, but it’s a true story related to me by my friend this past weekend.

The backlash against incentives, and other rewards-oriented retention strategies, was too broad and over-generalized. It isn’t that lavish incentives aren’t needed; it’s that the wrong people were getting them. The executives who already earn million dollar-plus salaries?  They’re not the ones who need the fabulous opportunities and luxury afforded by incentive travel, gifts, and end-of-the-year bonuses. Those employees who enjoyed the big rewards already were being rewarded with big-time salaries—for jobs they happened not to be doing too well given the hobbled state of their companies.

The executive retreats are great for leadership development and strategizing, as it’s good for brainstorming to get your “strategizers” (the ones you pay to think of ideas they don’t have to do the work for) out of the office, and it doesn’t hurt if the strategizing happens to take place in, say, Maui, HI, versus, Hackensack, NJ, but that’s not where retention and motivation focus should be aimed. Instead, train the retention efforts on those who do the work to carry out the plans, and occasionally come up with great ideas (when you’re open enough to hear those ideas and give them a try). Why waste time incentivizing and retaining those who do nothing but attend meetings and make speeches announcing their ideas?  With the economy not likely to soar for a while, it’s time to drop from the payroll (or at least the high-priced retention efforts) those whose only job function is “high-level strategy.”

A good experiment is to try a corporate culture makeover in which the employees most invested in are those whose primary responsibility is doing work. At the same time, stress to these workhorses that the bar will now be held higher for them, with a little “high-level” strategizing expected of them, too. In the tough new economy, it’s not enough to be just a workhorse or just a strategizer. Everyone—even those at the entry- or mid-level—have to be both. The sooner you teach that skill of strategizing and working at the same time, the sooner your payroll will be bursting with new pools of (truly) high-potential workers.

In the midst of our lamenting, my friend and I wondered what it would be like if companies with low budgets and concerned public relations departments at the very least treated high-performing workers to dinner at a gourmet restaurant once every six months. The events could be called “Hard Worker Dinners” as opposed to “High-Potential” dinners (“high-potential” has come to mean little more than a well-connected club at some companies). These events might involve, for instance, the company reserving a room at a great local restaurant to treat maybe 50 top workers from the entry and mid-level ranks (those not already rewarded with astronomical salaries). Those given this honor would be recognized in a mass e-mail to the whole company to inspire and shame lazier workers. It’s hard to believe, but even in this cutthroat economy with its dearth of jobs, there are still lazy people getting paid for full-time employment. I’ve seen it myself.

The worst part about retention and motivation/incentive strategies, in addition to their enjoyment too often reserved for those who can afford to treat themselves, is the ones the company seeks to hold onto lots of times has nothing to do with hard work. A lot of times the ones the company bends over to please are just relatives or friends of the executive board and well connected. Is that too bleak an assessment of mine, or do you think I’m on target?

Then, of course, you have to consider those who are not relatives or friends with the “right” people. There are those who got where they are by agreeing with everything. It sounds but bad, but don’t worry, that’s your next generation of high-level strategizers.


What are you doing to retain your best workers?  Are your retention strategies aimed at the employees who can help your company the most?


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Nathan Hipp

Margery, I'd like to correspond with you by email. I'm doing turnover research on Indian outsourcing operations and I've already collected data from 220 respondents in India. I've run across a few of your articles and I'd like to know more about your sources.

Can you email me at nhipp@alliant.edu so that we may correspond?

Thanks so much! Also, I'm on Linked In if you'd like to learn more about me--I recruit at executive levels in the biopharm industry while I'm finishing my dissertation for a PhD in Consulting Psychology.


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