Stop Using the Goodies, Gimmicks, and Gala Events Approach to Employee Retention

Imagine a male colleague of yours tells you his wife said she’s unhappy with their marriage. Last night she told him she doesn’t feel close to him; she doesn’t feel like they have an emotional connection.

He then shares his strategy for reviving his marriage: “I’m thinking of surprising her with a Caribbean vacation, or maybe I’ll get her a Miata or Mini Cooper convertible. Which one of these  would be the ticket, or is there something else that would be better?”

Wouldn’t your jaw drop in disbelief when you heard his proposed “solution”? His idea of a solution would give you a pretty good clue as to why your colleague is having “spouse retention” problems.

This craziness happens all the time in organizations

Even though his approach is admittedly absurd, it bears a haunting resemblance to the way many — if not most — organizations approach employee retention.

For instance, how often have you been asked:

 “So, what kind of program can you put together to help us reduce turnover?”

…or this…

“I know morale’s pretty low around here. How about putting together an employee appreciation day?”

Anyone who asks these questions has missed the point. Any employee retention strategy that revolves around employee-of-the-month awards, cool prizes, Fun Fridays, and other things that money can buy has missed the point:

You cannot satisfy psychological needs with material solutions.

When it comes to personal relationships, gifts do not replace genuinely caring about one’s partner, listening intently, and being willing to communicate openly and vulnerably.

When it comes to employee retention and engagement, goodies, gimmicks, and gala events do not replace creating a work experience that satisfies core human needs, such as the need to:

  1. Believe one’s work makes a difference.
  2. Feel the joy that comes from efficacy, mastery, and accomplishment.
  3. Belong to a community of kindred spirits and an organization one can believe in.
  4. Feel seen and valued as an individual human being, not merely as a means to an end.

Using this approach can even make things worse

Not only does trying to reduce turnover by using the “goodies, gimmicks, and gala events” approach NOT yield the desired results, it can also make things worse. When organizations try to use the “three Gs” to reduce turnover and increase engagement, they risk creating two negative outcomes:

First, doing this increases the odds that employees will be even more cynical and jaded.

If employees’ daily work experience screams “We don’t care about employees. We don’t respect them. Employees are expendable,” trying to convince them otherwise through Three Gs will only make them distrust management even more.

They will see you as being both tone deaf and manipulative, as in “Do you REALLY think having management serve employees burgers at a company cookout will make us forget how you take us for granted and treat us disrespectfully day in and day out?”

The second unfortunate outcome of using the Three G’s approach is the creation of a spoiled, “What have you done for me lately?” workforce that sits back and waits for management to surpass its last bribery campaign.

I have seen this happen in both an organization I worked for, and in many client organizations. I remember working in an organization that gave all employees an extremely generous bonus if the company reached its financial goals. Right after the bonus was dispersed, a huge snow storm hit the city where the company was located. Over 40% of the call center representatives didn’t show up that day, including those who lived within walking distance.

Senior management was understandably outraged by their lack of loyalty, especially after having received such a great bonus. They were, unfortunately, oblivious to how they had created a culture where employees saw these bonuses as an entitlement, and at the same time, were treated in ways that made them feel unappreciated and not worthy of respect.

This combination led to this strange entitled, usurious attitude by employees, with their primary focus being, “What can I get out of my employer?” rather than “How can I make the biggest contribution?”

Great perks, fun programs, and gala events are a good thing if…

There’s nothing wrong with being generous with great perks, lavish benefits, or celebratory events. They are great when they are an honest, congruent reflection of how management sees and treats employees on a daily basis.

Think back to our anxious husband analogy: Giving his wife a sports car or some other lavish gift, or taking her on a vacation is great IF these gifts reflect a great, loving relationship. Within that context, they are a congruent representation and celebration of the relationship.

However, they are NOT the source of a great relationship or a replacement for having critical psychological needs met in a relationship.

Whether it’s gifts in personal relationships or perks, benefits, and festive events and their role in employee engagement, these are the frosting on the cake, they are NOT the cake.

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The cake is the core human needs that must be satisfied in order to have a satisfying relationship or work experience.

So when it comes to retaining and engaging employees — and helping them do their best work — the cake is the work experience.

All the rest is the frosting.

That’s why it is so important to understand:

  • What the research reveals about what employees want in a work experience
  • What different professions and demographics want in a work experience
  • What research on human nature offers for clues about how different core psychological needs affect motivation and performance

And then, it’s critical that you know how to design jobs and work experiences that satisfy these key drivers and needs.

By doing this, you not only increase your ability to retain talent, you are far more likely to get greater quality and quantity of work from each employee.

To take the next step

  1. Share this article with your management team.
  2. Read and share How HR can save us from Employee Engagement’s #EpicFail
  3. Follow the suggestions in that article.