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5 Free & (Somewhat) Simple Ways To Make Employees Love Working For Your Company

By Dr. Darla Shaw, SPHR, MBA, MLS, PhD.

HR and management professionals talk a lot about “culture” and “employee engagement” these days, but these popular buzzwords really come back down to a simple question:

Do the majority of your employees absolutely love working for your company?

Please notice I said majority. There are always outliers, and you can never make everyone happy. But if you have the majority of the employees on your side, even the sour apples can turn around! Herd mentality is a powerful thing.

And what are the benefits of having employees love working for you? Well, for one, you get to keep them. These days, employees are switching jobs every 2 years! That puts a tremendous strain on resources and makes finding top talent doubly hard.

Aside from that? Productivity, creative solutions, reputation and the list goes on and on!

So if the answer to the above question is yes, then congratulations! You probably have at least a decent “culture” and your employees are likely somewhat engaged. If you have no idea, then that means you’re probably out of touch, and while you may be doing some things right, there’s room for improvement. If the answer is no, then you know you have work to do. No matter the category, there’s always more to be learned.

The thing to realize is that you do not have to break the bank to get employees engaged. Passing out hats, t-shirts, movie tickets, gift cards and more gimmicks can seem like nice ways to “appreciate” your employees, but the truth is that recognition is not the same as engagement, and frankly can come off as cliché or worse, be seen as an entitlement, if used too often. 

And yes, you may acknowledge birthdays and send Christmas cards and even throw company parties! But that is not the same thing as having a rewarding and enjoyable work environment and strong, talent-retaining culture.

And no, you do not need to hire some fancy team-building guru or hire some motivational speaker. Everything you need to retain your employees is something you can do yourself, and it all starts with five, very simple behaviors.

1.     Practice “Genuine Communication”

By far, communication is one of the hardest things for employees at all levels to master. You could do a Google search on communication and get inundated with books, motivational speakers and all manner of advice, but most of it comes down to a simple concept I call “genuine communication”.

Genuine communication is a specific type of communication which employs concepts like active listening and 360 degree feedback… and it doesn’t require fancy tools. All it requires is a commitment to actually LISTEN more than you talk, and to speak to employees like they’re your partners rather than the child you got stuck having to babysit or worse…. your enemy.

So for example, you probably host Town Halls or employee meetings of some kind, and you think you’re doing a great job of communicating simply because you’re reading off a pre-prepared script and keeping your employees “informed”. But genuine communication is not about keeping employees informed (although that’s part of it). It’s about communicating the things they not only need to know, but want to know!

So for example, instead of going into your Town Hall with your agenda and your pre-prepared PowerPoint slides and your little cheat sheet of notes and metrics, you instead ask everyone “What’s on your mind? What do you want to know?”

Wait for the stunned silence to pass and then start prodding people when they get reluctant to speak up. Most employees are shy the first meeting, but by the second or third, they’ll come with lots more questions!

Only once you have all of these questions listed up on your board do you go back to your script. But only go back to it if it’s addressing the questions they want answered! Share the news you need to, but focus the majority of information on what they want to hear.

Why? Because otherwise it’s an entirely one way communication. It’s from the top-down, and it’s YOUR meeting, not theirs. They’re just showing up to hear the latest news flash, get the free donuts and go back to their jobs. You could have just saved yourself the time and sent around a memo.

The two-way conversation is an essential part of the concept of genuine communication, and you’ll know you have a problem with genuine communication in your company if you suggest going into a Town Hall without a script and everyone cringes in horror. 

But this is just one example! Again, it is a concept that basically says you will be honest and transparent and engage in two way communication constantly, whether in Town Halls, performance discussions or even just day to day work operations.

Another example is getting rid of your canned corporate communications! That’s fine for the public, but with larger organizations, sending all your employees a communication that sounds like it got pulled from the Harvard Business Review is not only off-putting but the surest way to put people to sleep.

Speak in plain English. Stop lawyering everything up! Obviously, don’t put out bad information and absolutely check for accuracy, but speak to people as if they’re people and if you can’t tell them something, be plain. Say “I can’t talk about that yet, but I will let you know when I can” instead of some canned response they know legal counsel came up with. These kinds of responses alienate your people because it says “you don’t trust me enough to be honest with me”.

Genuine communication is free, and doesn’t cost you a thing except a little discomfort and effort, but it reaps huge rewards. When employees know you’ll be up front with them about business challenges, upcoming reductions in force, or other problems that it would be easier to hide, they will start to actually trust and respect you, and from respect can grow love!

2.     Give Them The Freedom to Fail

So grit your teeth on this one. No one loves failure! We hate failure, and I by no means am advocating you keeping a consistently bad performer in your company. I’m not talking about overall performance here.

When I say “fail”, I mean as individuals. Let’s be honest; we all make mistakes. So why is it that some companies actually have policies that penalize employees for the simple act of being human?

There’s some justifications for it of course. You had the work procedure. You were trained. You didn’t follow directions! You handled that situation with the customer badly.

Granted… all of that may be true. But the saying “he who is without sin may cast the first stone” should apply at least in some cases, right?

When employees are terrified to fail due to punitive consequence, whether it be a disciplinary action, getting fired or simply berated for their mistake, there’s a sense of tension and anxiety that permeates the culture and makes people more inclined to throw each other under the bus. Eventually, no one wants to take accountability for anything, because the consequences of being “accountable” are very bad.

So what happens if you flip this scenario and give people the freedom to fail? Seriously. You have a policy that says “individual failures are viewed as learning experiences and will not be subject to disciplinary action without evidence of gross negligence or wilful misconduct”.

Suddenly everyone breathes this sigh of relief, and whenever someone messes up, you get to ask the question, “So, how could you have done that differently? What did you learn from this?”

Now you’re no longer their parent waiting in the wings to punish them. Now you’re their mentor, their champion, who picks them up when they fall, gives them a gentle shove and puts them back in the game.

But what if they never improve? What if they learn nothing?!

Then you have a genuine performance issue, which has hopefully been documented in their reviews, and you address it with a Performance Improvement Plan, or some other method. If you have to part ways, so be it, but at least you gave them every chance.

3.     Whenever Possible, Be Fair

Fairness, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, no matter what you do, someone will always consider something “unfair”, and there are times every company has to clench their jaw, draw a line in the sand and say “The line must be drawn here! This far! No farther!” (Sorry, I’m a Star Trek fan.)

But let’s be honest; we know when a situation is just blatantly unfair. Any time you’re taking from someone else in order to benefit another, or any time you’re showing favoritism or not taking into account individual circumstances, you feel that little twist in your gut that says “ugh, this is so unfair!”

And that’s what I’m talking about; those moments when you want to bend, but policy dictates otherwise. Or those times when you know something is just wrong, but you keep your mouth shut because speaking up would just cause issues.

These are the moments when you need to take a long hard look at the situation and decide, “Is this really necessary?”

Too often, ultra conservative policies are there to protect the company, but the liability is actually quite negligible in reality. Exceptions are usually things HR Managers try to avoid, because the idea is if you do it for one person and not the other, you open yourself up to liability. And all of that is true! But still… we DO make exceptions, and to be honest, we should.

A company that never allows exceptions to the rules becomes fascist, dictatorial, set in its ways and unwilling to change. This is the very definition of stagnation, and employees will be more likely to look for a company with far more flexible policies and managers.

So whenever possible… be fair. Make a few exceptions! Maybe no good deed goes unpunished, but at least people will know you tried to do a good thing, and once again, that builds loyalty, trust and love.

4.     Make Them Smile

I know I said recognition wasn’t engagement, and I meant it, but with that being said, engagement is assisted by recognition, and work environment and culture are definitely helped by birthday parties and social functions. So yes, make them smile! But you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do it.

A fun work environment can make even the most difficult jobs appealing. Southwest Airlines could teach you a thing or two about that! They have one of the lowest turnover rates in their industry (less than 4%), and they do that by fostering a work environment that is both fun and light-hearted. The same goes for Disney, Google and several other leading companies who incorporate fun games, contests, prizes, social events and generally putting employee happiness first.

So if you’re working in a stuffy, boring work environment and smiling is against the rules, you might want to rethink that policy. Celebrate May the 4th Star Wars day, have a costume party, put funny signs around the office (“Warning: This copier can sense fear. Speak in slow, soothing tones”), and host a card game or something to break up the work day around lunch time.

The proof is in the pudding; employees love these warm, engaging environments and are much more likely to stay with a company that makes going to work a pleasure rather than a chore.

5.     Manage Their Work, Not Their Time

Here it is! The piece de resistance! We’re talking cutting edge policy here people, and I guarantee it’s going to be the future of companies that want to keep and retain their top employees.

So obviously, for non-exempt employees, managing time is a federal law. You have to know how many hours your employees worked so you can pay them! And if your company’s industry is based on specific hours, tardiness and absenteeism isn’t something you can just accept.

But managing an employee’s time has become an obsession for many companies, and it’s all because they think that the more hours you spend at the office, the more productive you are, even though the pandemic has shown that is technically not accurate.

And yet, still companies have a big issue with allowing employees to work from home or take on hybrid models of work, mostly because of a fear of not being able to manage their time.

As for hourly employees who are entirely unable to work from home, employers tack attendance metrics like they’re in the business of doing that, rather than in the business of delivering products and services to their customers.

One company I worked for fired one of their top performers; a man who literally mentored others, went above and beyond in his job every day, and easily was twice as productive as any other employee on the floor. Why did they fire him? Because he took too much time off to care for his wife, who was going through cancer treatments. He had used up all his intermittent FMLA and rather than just work out a schedule that worked for both him and the company, they terminated him for attendance issues.

Worst. Mistake. Ever!

Not only did it seem to violate that fairness thing we talked about, but how exactly did this company even profit from this? Not only did they lose one of their top performers, but they had to advertise for someone to replace him, spend time and money on interviews, then drug screens, background checks, recruitment fees and, of course, training! Training which would be inadequate compared to his twenty years of experience.

Instead, they could have easily let him take extra unpaid time off; allowed him to work a reduced or flex schedule. Then once his personal issues were sorted, they’d not only have retained a top performer, but they’d have his loyalty and the loyalty of everyone who worked with him and saw how awesome this company was!

So that’s what I mean. If you have a vacation policy and a sick leave policy and you’re freaking out about your employees going outside your little box of policies, stop! If the employee is worth keeping, then keep them! Adjust schedules, allow for part-time work or shift-swaps or whatever you have to do to keep your people. But stop being the timeclock police!

Okay, so that’s it. As I promised, all five of these are free, and… somewhat….simple. Do these five things, and I guarantee you will get employees telling their friends and family “I work for the most awesome company ever!”

[If you want to gain insight into your company's culture, try taking our research-backed Work Culture assessment, designed to identify your overall work culture: ]

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