All too often, the employment law advice that we provide as practitioners focuses on issues that relate to problem employees. You know these folks—they’re the troublemakers, the harassers, the pot-stirrers, the chronically absent, and the habitually tardy. They’re the underperformers, the rule breakers, the constant complainers, the leave abusers, the policy violators, the workplace bullies, and the list goes on and on. Often, it’s this squeaky-wheel segment of the workforce that receives and monopolizes the vast majority of HR’s time, energy, and resources. Such workers are also the ones who command the attention of upper management.
But what about the good eggs? I’m talking about the employees who reliably show up every day, report to work on time, and rarely call off. They are the top performers—the ones who are loyal, show up with a positive attitude, and consistently get the job done. They do what they’re told—or, more accurately, they proactively do what is required of them (and more) before even needing to be asked. They abide by company rules and policies, are rarely the subject of complaints, exhibit unwavering professionalism, and consistently meet or exceed performance expectations. Do these employees know how much you value and appreciate them? Are you sure about that?
If you spend the majority of your time in crisis-management mode—addressing problems, putting out fires, and tending to troublemakers—there’s a fair chance that you may not be spending enough time letting good employees know just how thankful you are to have them on your team. Good employees often fly under the radar and don’t demand a great deal of attention. However, don’t be lulled into mistaking their easygoing nature and low-maintenance characteristics for satisfaction and fulfillment. Over time, if left unrecognized, your good employees may begin to feel underappreciated and undervalued—like they are nothing more than a replaceable commodity or a cog in the wheel. Eventually, human nature will kick in, and thsoe employees may become disenchanted and demotivated. If you have any doubt that your rock star employees know just how appreciated and valuable they are to the company, read on for some ways to make sure that the message is appropriately communicated.
Praise Publicly, Reward Longevity and Loyalty
Everyone loves to receive a shout-out from the boss! Every Wednesday, our CEO disseminates a weekly e-newsletter about happenings throughout the firm. The newsletter highlights the contributions of employees at all levels, from attorneys to staff members. It typically includes several noteworthy events, such as success stories, a compliment by a client, a favorable result, contributions to community causes, and instances when an employee went the extra mile or selflessly lent a helping hand to a colleague. Public praise by members of leadership can go a long way toward letting employees know they are valued and appreciated—and it costs nothing!
Often, employers create fanfare around welcoming new employees to the company. They roll out the red carpet, host fancy orientation sessions, adopt elaborate onboarding processes, and publicly express enthusiasm and excitement about having new employees join the team.
Undoubtedly, a strong onboarding process is essential to employee recruitment. However, don’t forget about retention and engagement of longtime employees. Take steps to acknowledge loyalty and longevity. Celebrate milestone work anniversaries. Get to know employees on a personal level, and recognize birthdays, anniversaries, and lifetime achievements. Reward employees who have faithfully and loyally served the company with longevity incentives. Find creative ways to make sure that longtime employees know they are valued and appreciated just as much as the shiny, new ones.
Incentivize and Reward Top Performers
We frequently caution employers to ensure they are treating all employees equally with respect to the terms and conditions of employment in order to avoid discrimination claims alleging disparate treatment. Accordingly, it may be ingrained in your mind that all employees should be treated the same when it comes to compensation, bonuses, and other perks. However, there’s nothing wrong or unlawful about rewarding and incentivizing excellent performance. Employers sometimes punish poor performers but often fail to reward the exceptional performers. Thankfully, being a marginal or poor performer isn’t a protected class under the law. Therefore, it’s entirely legitimate to distinguish among employees based on differences in job performance.
When it comes to rewards, it’s OK to start small—reward excellence with a gift card to the employee’s favorite coffee shop or lunch spot, or a special item of company swag. If you’re feeling extra generous, opt for a bonus or extra time off. Avoid being an employer that only rewards good work with the addition of more work. Over time, your good performers will begin to feel overworked, underpaid, and taken advantage of—especially if their compensation is commensurate with that of their underperforming peers.
Talk about the Future and Discuss Opportunities for Upward Advancement
Good employees are also highly motivated. Demonstrate your investment and commitment to such employees by letting them know that they are an essential part of the company’s long-term plans for success. Regularly discuss their future with the company. Provide strong performers with opportunities to grow professionally. Ask them about how they envision their future with the company. Perhaps they are satisfied in their current role; however, there may be times when a strong performer feels like he or she has outgrown their role and that the only opportunities to grow lie outside the company.
Strong performers also often have ideas for improvements within the company and passions that lie outside of their current responsibilities. Provide employees with opportunities to showcase their talents by contributing to the company in other areas.
Finally, Say Thank You
In today’s fast-paced, high-tech world, writing “thank you” notes is a lost and dying art. If you’re at all like me, you still love the occasions when you receive a piece of handwritten snail mail, such as a birthday card or a kind note. Concluding your phone calls and e-mails with a cursory “thanks!” isn’t really enough to let employees know that you truly appreciate them. Likewise, their paycheck isn’t a substitute for a thank you. Take the time to stop and say “thank you” in a thoughtful and genuine way that lets employees know you really mean it.
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, use this as an opportunity to let your rock-star employees know how much you appreciate them, and begin to make the expression of gratitude a year-round part of your culture.
Julie A. Moore is an attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC, practicing in the firm’s Morgantown, West Virginia, office. She is a contributor to West Virginia Employment Law Letter. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.