July 17, 2024

where people want to be

a seagull on a rocky beach
photo caption: a seagull rests on a granite beach in the Acadia National Forest in Maine. the boulders of granite are dotted with gray-green lichen. bright green trees cover the part of the land that is presumably not granite. the seagull looks happy. i miss outside.

how do we reward employees?

Almost every organization benefits when it can hold on to the employees it has. As employees stay with a company, they develop institutional knowledge. They can shape company culture and help define its ideals. People grow with education or experience, either by pursuit or passive accumulation. The company extracts that value for as long as that worker is there. As a manager, I have a vested interest in keeping the people I work with. As a person working with people, I want them to grow as they want to, even if that means one day they will leave.

gimme incentives

I can think of three ways managers can tell workers they are valuable to their company. They can increase their worth, increase their responsibilities, or increase their authority.

The easiest path to retention is paying someone more. This usually comes in exchange for more responsibility. At every place I’ve worked, the responsibility came first. After several months of success with that responsibility, my pay usually has gone up with it. If it doesn’t, it’s usually one sign among many that it’s time to leave.

For people who are naturally curious or career-driven, responsibility increases are another incentive. With my employees, I conduct some variation of a stay interview. Exit interviews often help us learn where we went wrong with an employee who leaves. Stay interviews help us avoid or postpone that departure. I ask questions about the person’s career goals, what job skills interest them, or how they would like to grow. As best I can, I try to assign them new assignments that fit within those goals.

It’s not enough to assign them work and let them sink or swim. That works for some people, but not everyone. Guide people on how they can learn according to their preferred style. Would they pick up their experience by shadowing someone in that field? Can you point them to some books, magazines, or journals? Is there a podcast or video series that they can use? Some people learn best through pure trial and error. Assign them small or low-consequence projects that can absorb mistakes or delays. For people who are trying new things, I try to make it safe at first to fail.

Many people use management as the natural progression of a person’s career. If someone is excellent at making widgets, they should manage the widget makers. This works, sometimes. Some people do succeed as managers following this path. Managing people is a completely separate skill set. People who want to lead need opportunity, experience, and feedback to do it well.

Sometimes added authority means a person has more say in how to run the company or their team. Their seniority alone can change how others perceive new ideas or directions. This one is tricky, though. Sometimes people with seniority can embed exclusion into their culture. They can cling to the ways they’ve always done something. They can prevent needed change from taking effect.

keep it going

Besides those, what else can a company offer? They can fund job trainings or pay for conferences. When I worked for the federal government, everyone got $1000 per year for education. You could roll over the money into the next year if you wanted to spend it on something big. One year my colleagues and I pooled our stipends to have a consultant lead a series of team trainings.

title change
People with more responsibilities don’t always get a related job description upgrade. Their pay will increase, sometimes several times over the course of a year. But on paper, they’re doing the job they started several years ago. This isn’t always intentional, but it can be a way for an employer to “trap” their high performer. I think about career advancement through the story a person’s resume tells. A gradual increase in responsibility over time can be hard to show on a resume. This is especially true if the title never changes. Avoid creating new titles that are niche to your company. This is especially true for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, or disabled workers who face extra bias in the hiring process. I would have a hard time justifying “Chief Fun Officer” on my resume unless my next job was at a board game company (call me!).

position upgrade
It’s important to review the job description of a position through the context of the person who is in it. Did the person in that position take an entry-level job and grow it into something more complex? Are those person’s tasks things that the next person in that role will do? As a company changes, some jobs do get more complex over time. It’s important that a person’s job reflects that.

some people are happy where they are

We don’t need to grow for growth’s sake. Many people move up in their careers for either a pay or responsibility increase. And there are lots of people who find fulfillment outside of their workplace. Unless they’re no longer a good fit for the role, there’s no reason to force someone to move on. And when a person leaves a job or a workplace, it never hurts to help them with a soft landing.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space