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Recession-proof Employee Loyalty Plan


Eight ways to show your employees the love when you can’t show them the money.

by Ed Hess and Charlie Goetz

America may be in one of the longest economic tough periods in recent decades, but if you’re a small-business owner, that doesn’t mean less work for you. On the contrary, it means there’s much more. You’re hustling to attract more customers, bending over backwards to keep the ones you have and scrambling to keep up with the day-to-day tasks that keep the business flowing. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to shoulder this extra work on your own because you have a team of hard-working employees toiling right alongside you. But here’s the real question: In the (understandable) absence of raises and bonuses, how long can you expect them to stick around?

Remember: Our economic situation will not always be this bad. Sure, your employees will stay with you while the job market is poor. But if they feel like you haven’t treated them well or appreciated their hard work during the slow economy, they’ll move on to greener pastures when things turn around. That’s why slowdowns like this one are critical times for caring relationship building.

Many small-business owners wrongly assume that employees respond only to money, a belief that’s distressing indeed in these cash-strapped days. In times like this, it is important to go back to basics and remember that employees want the same things owners want: to be appreciated, to be listened to and respected, to have a chance to be all they can be and to be part of something special.

Did your second-grade teacher make you feel good by paying you money? No, she gave you a gold star to commemorate your achievement and told you what a great job you did. That principle works in the business world, too.

There are many great ways to keep up employee morale and build loyalty that can cost you very little or even nothing. You just have to pay attention to your employees’ needs and be creative. For example:

1 Say, “Thank you!” It’s so simple, it almost seems silly to mention it, but just telling your employees “thank you” when they’ve done a great job will go a long way. Verbal recognition of the work they do will not only keep up their morale, it will increase the mutual respect that exists between the two of you. As a result, they’ll not only work hard for you but they’ll stick with you through thick and thin.

This is such a simple thing to do it’s shameful that more business owners don’t take advantage of it. Overworked entrepreneurs sometimes get the attitude that they’re working hard so why shouldn’t their employees? Well, if they don’t feel appreciated, their hearts won’t be in their work, even if they are putting in the face time. A sincere “job well done” to them is a small price to pay for that extra bit of effort that makes all the difference.

2 Give them inexpensive bonuses. While money is tight, you can’t give your employees significant raises or bonuses, but you can show your appreciation with other small, less pricey rewards. A few great options include a gift certificate to a local restaurant or tickets to a show or ball game. Alternately, consider giving them an afternoon off with pay.

These small thank-yous allow you to show your employees that you appreciate them and care about them as people. And they show your employees you think of them as more than just a way to make money.

3 Provide them with free meals. The quickest way to your employees’ hearts is through their stomachs. Providing a catered lunch once a month or doughnuts in the morning is a great way to keep up employee morale and thank your employees. Also don’t forget to take advantage of birthdays and anniversaries. Celebrate each of them with a small party (that includes cake!), and not only does it show your employees that you appreciate them but it provides a great opportunity for everyone to get together, mingle and have an enjoyable time at work.

4 Award them! You might want to a have a better system than Michael’s “Dundies” on The Office, but coming up with a way to award great work at your business is a fun way to show your employees that you value their efforts.

Whether it’s a simple blue ribbon or a framed certificate, present the award in front of all of your employees, and tell them exactly why you are giving it. This provides the employee being awarded some time in the spotlight and gives you an opportunity to reiterate to your employees that quality work is valued at your business. 

5 Write them a thank-you note. Taking the time to write a short thank-you note to a hardworking employee is always well worth it. Let the note be a nice surprise by leaving it at the employee’s workstation or by mailing it to his or her home. And make it specific—“Thank you for staying late last Thursday to help with those wedding designs” is a lot more powerful than a vague “Thanks for all your hard work!”

You’ll be surprised by how much these notes are valued by your employees. It reminds them that you value the work they do for you. And it reminds you that your employees are a big reason why you are able to keep your business going in these tough economic times.

6 Help them improve themselves. Your employees appreciate it when you are willing to invest in their future and help them widen their horizons. You can do this by paying for them to attend a class or a seminar that interests them.

Let your employees decide whether the classes are work-related or not. If they are, great! You’ve paid for them to learn skills that will help them do their jobs better. If they aren’t, that’s great, too, because you’ve likely helped them build on areas that will make them feel better about themselves and thus make them happier employees.

7 Help them get healthy. Providing your employees with a gym membership can have multiple benefits. It’s another great way for you to say thank you and help them improve their lives, but there are other benefits as well. First of all, you might be able to get a group deal at a nearby gym so the cost to you won’t be very significant. Secondly, your exercised employees will have more energy that they will expend at work. Finally, their improved health will help you save on health insurance and paid sick days.

8 Ask them what they’d like to improve about the business. You might be surprised by what you hear. One employee might suggest some new office chairs while another might suggest a new way for processing orders. Either way, they will be changes that will help them do their jobs better. It will make them feel like they have some ownership in your company—plus, it can be hard for an employee to leave when he feels that he has helped build your company into the great business it is.

But remember, once you’ve asked your employees what they’d like to change, there’s no turning back. You must take their suggestions seriously and show them you value their suggestions by acting on some of them as quickly as possible.

Your employees know that times are tough, so it is unlikely that they are going to be screaming “Show me the money” at you. But when all of this is over, you don’t want them looking back and thinking, “Man, I really worked hard for my boss when he needed me and not once did he say ‘Thank you.’” Your employees want to do a great job for you. They want you to care. So show it to them! It’s that simple.

About the authors:

Ed Hess lives in Charlottesville, Va., and spent most of his business life advising entrepreneurs and financing their business ventures. He went to college at the University of Florida and to law school at the University of Virginia and graduate law school at New York University. Mr. Hess’ professional career was spent with firms like Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), Warburg Paribus Becker, Boettcher and Company, the Robert M. Bass Group, and Andersen Corporate Finance, and he has built three service businesses.

In 1999, Mr. Hess began teaching business students part-time at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, during which time he created and taught the entrepreneurship course. In 2002, he joined the faculty at Goizueta full time as an adjunct professor, where he became the founder and executive director of both the Center for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Growth and the Values-Based Leadership Institute.

In July 2007, Mr. Hess joined the faculty of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia as a professor of business administration and Batten executive-in-residence, where he teaches courses on building small businesses and organic growth. Mr. Hess has written five books in addition to the latest, So, You Want to Start a Business? 8 Steps to Take Before Making the Leap, which he co-authored with Charlie Goetz.

Charlie Goetz earned his college degree at Emory University and holds an MBA from the University of Texas. He is a serial entrepreneur who built several successful businesses, which, in total, employed more than 1,500 people. After selling most of his businesses, Mr. Goetz began teaching entrepreneurship at Emory University in the Goizueta Business School. He has earned multiple teaching awards.

Today, Mr. Goetz lives in Atlanta, Ga. He is an investor in several new businesses and consults with people starting businesses. His specialties are marketing, customer acquisition and product development.

About the authors’ book:

So, You Want to Start a Business? 8 Steps to Take Before Making the Leap is available in bookstores nationwide and from all major online booksellers. For more information, visit www.edhltd.com or www.ftpress.com.


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