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SMALL BUSINESS STRATEGIES | MANAGING PEOPLE

Want to Keep Your Employees Happy? Try a Little Respect

Cookie-cutter incentives aren't enough to keep your workers on the job. The key is to find out what will make them feel valued and appreciated.

October 14, 1998|JANE APPLEGATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Throwing money at your best employees isn't enough to keep them around, especially in this era of low unemployment. Treating them with respect and keeping them challenged are what work.

Losing even one great person can be devastating for a small firm, said Maury Hanigan, chief executive of Hanigan Consulting Group in New York.

Unhappy employees rarely walk into your office and admit they are bored or upset. It's up to you to watch for the danger signs.

"They may start coming in late, leaving early or not putting in the extra effort required," Hanigan said. "Someone who is not volunteering to take on a new project or is missing deadlines may also be unhappy."

If you notice any of these symptoms, Hanigan suggests asking the person, "Is there anything going on at work that's bothering you?"

"The time that is most constructive to sit down and talk is when there is something you can do about it," she said.

Cookie-cutter incentives don't work, she added. The secret is to find out what will make someone feel appreciated and valued.

She said a magazine editor who was losing his best writers to a competitor called in one person and was about to offer him a substantial raise to stick around.

"It turns out all the writer really wanted was a laptop computer because he commuted to work," Hanigan said. "So it's important to ask people what they want to get more satisfaction out of their job. Your sales manager probably wants something very different than your finance manager."

Here are more morale-boosting tips from successful entrepreneurs:

Gary Gardner, president of B.H. Gardner Co. in Indianapolis, said most of his employees have been with the firm eight to 10 years. The company, founded in 1924, sells baking supplies to Indiana bakeries and provides a high level of customer service. Drivers always rotate the stock in a customer's stock room when they deliver new products, for example.

"On the surface, many people here have boring jobs, but we reinforce that their job has an impact on the customer even if they don't see them," Gardner said.

He said his employees are cross-trained to cover for one another. The company also allows flexible work schedules to accommodate employees with children.

"We let them know what they are doing is important," Gardner said. "We constantly tell them we can't do the job without them."

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Elizabeth Gooding, president of Advanced Programming Techniques Inc. in Boston, has the perfect solution for boosting morale: Chocolate.

"I've now raised a tribe of chocoholics," said Gooding, a former chef who now provides high-tech methods to help financial institutions better communicate with their customers. At least once a week she brings in chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream or trays of chocolate truffles. Her new offices will feature a full kitchen where she plans to host management breakfasts.

Beyond providing a steady supply of chocolate, she offers profit sharing, a 401(k) plan, health benefits and other perks to her 29 employees. She also shares financial information at quarterly meetings, something most business owners are afraid to do.

"I want them to understand how too many of them going on vacation during the same month impacts the bottom line," she said.

On a rotating basis, every employee serves on the employee advisory council. The council deals with everything from which flavor of soda to buy for the kitchen to which benefits Advanced Programming should offer.

"Whatever they bring up to me, they will get a response," Gooding said.

One proposal that didn't fly was a four-day workweek.

"The financial institutions we serve work five days a week," she said.

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