Why Free Food and Cheap Gifts Won’t Keep Your Talent

A few things to consider before offering your employees free lunch, cute toys, and other low cost items.

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free food

Here’s something you need to realize about offering your employees free lunch, cute toys out of silly catalogs, and other low cost items: there’s only so far a free lunch will take you.

If all you do is hand out free bagels on Fridays, for example, or your employees will quickly stop feeling the benefit of the freebie. The reason for this? There’s no why to the freebie. Everyone gets it, everyone is equally rewarded, and no one is excluded. This is great for building a sense of teamwork, but less helpful for reminding the best and brightest of why they came to work with you in the first place.

Before you buy the next goofy toy to decorate someone’s desk for the upcoming holiday, think about what makes perks really work in the office.

Know your employees

The perks that people respond to are deeply individual. Just because one employee wants face time with the boss to present an idea they’ve been working on all year doesn’t mean that this reward will motivate everyone. Some people would find that deeply intimidating; their perfect perk would be an understanding and flexible schedule that meets their needs, so long as the work gets done.

The first step to offering perks that count is making sure you’re offering the right perks to the right people. It’s rare that you’re going to offer a perk that every person in the office is going to use. That’s okay, as long as there is a perk for everyone.

Ask why this perk is going to make a difference

Free bagels are nice, but ultimately, most people who want a bagel are going to grab one on the way into work. When a free meal at work is particularly useful is when you’re asking your employees to go above and beyond for some reason. Do you need them to come in early or stay late? Provide coffee or pizza or bagels. Do you need them to stay in the office for lunch so that there can be an all office meeting? Get a catered meal.

Perks work best when you’re either rewarding someone for a job well done, or thanking them for going above and beyond.

Perks need to be part of a culture of thankfulness

Ask yourself: when was the last time your employees got real time feedback on something they did well, and something they could improve? If you only think about such things during their yearly reviews, you’re failing your talent, and they probably know it.

Highly talented individuals are often highly self critical. They need to know from the people around them what they’re doing well, because they often have a distorted sense of their own success. The problem is that they can also see false praise a thousand miles away, and just saying “Great job today,” isn’t going to be enough.

When you praise your employees, be specific and direct. “I saw that you stayed late to get everything done on the Adams account. Thank you for being so thorough. When I presented the completed work, everyone was impressed, specifically with what you did on the sub accounts. Would you be interested in talking with me more about how you did that, so we can see if it’s something that we should be implementing across the board?” This would be a good way to thank someone who likes to know that their ideas are valued by the institution, and who would feel rewarded by a chance to share those ideas with the larger company.

So what do I need to do to retain talent?

There isn’t an easy answer, because each person will have a different set of requirements for their job to be ideal. For some people, a flexible schedule trumps all; for others, making sure that those above and below them care about what they think is the most important perk of their job. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is to create a culture of caring what your employees want, and delivering it whenever possible. To do that, you need to create a flexible organization that values employees as more than just replaceable cogs.

What does your organization do to retain the top talent it has attracted? What’s the most important thing to keep you at your job?

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