More Than a Paycheck

UPDATED: September 7, 2010
PUBLISHED: September 7, 2010

As the economy slowly recovers, employees are eagerly seeking greener pastures. For the first time since 2008, in the second quarter of 2010, more people quit their jobs than were laid off. Finding and training replacement staffers will cost you time and money, so it’s smart business to keep your best performers. How? Try offering programs and incentives that help them live up to their full potential—both personally and professionally.

Big companies with big budgets have long offered perks such as tuition reimbursement, training and mentoring, health and wellness programs, and flextime and telecommuting opportunities. Now, small companies are getting in on the act.

“[With] companies not as able to provide salary increases as they have in the past, people are starting to take advantage of [these] programs to improve job satisfaction,” explains Janet Flewelling, director of human resource operations at Administaff, which serves as a full-service HR department for more than 104,000 small and mid-sized businesses nationwide.

Businesses that offer professional development do better at retaining employees, says Milan P. Yager, president and CEO of the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO). Yager cites research from the American Council on Education showing continuing education programs are a key factor motivating employees to stay in their jobs.

Developing employees’ potential is a win-win situation, says Flewelling: “With more job satisfaction comes higher productivity, and as employees improve their skills, the company gets immediate benefits.”

Ready to set up your own employee development programs? First, take an inventory of the skills your employees have and those they need. Next, talk to employees to find out what programs they’re interested in. Finally, assess your company’s culture and values and consider what types of programs best support them.

Here’s a look at some popular options and how to make them work for your business—however small your budget.

Mentoring, Training and Education

Starting a mentoring program in your business costs nothing and benefits everyone. “The person being mentored learns from observing a role model,” Flewelling says, “while the mentor learns from being observed.” Pair a mentee with a mentor a level above him or her, or with a high-performing co-worker at a peer level, Flewelling advises.

Another free option: cross-training. “You can update people’s skills and enable them to grow by just having them job-shadow someone else,” Flewelling says. Cross-training also benefits your business by providing a backup person in case one employee is absent.

Tuition reimbursement is usually too expensive for small companies, but if you can contribute even a small amount, Flewelling says it’s well worth it. If not, give employees flexible schedules to accommodate schooling, allow a few hours a week as study time or provide a mentor to help with studies.

Consider launching your own in-house education program. Host weekly brown-bag lunches where employees give educational talks to their co-workers. Your marketing director could talk about social media, for example. Or have everyone read the same business book and talk about how to implement the principles in your business. The topics don’t have to be work-related, either. Bringing in outside experts, such as local businesspeople who can speak about subjects ranging from nutrition to personal finance, for instance, can enhance your employees’ general well-being.

If several people in your company want to attend a conference, but you can only afford to send one, that person should share what he or she learns with co-workers. At KolbeCo, a communications firm in St. Louis, Mo., founder Lauren Kolbe pays meeting fees for her seven employees to join professional or community organizations and share what they learn in weekly staff meetings, “so the entire team reaps the benefit.”

Another idea is a personal-development library with books, audio programs and magazines providing information to help employees in all aspects of their lives and careers. You’ll need to make ongoing investments to build it, but the library can start small. Employees can bring in articles to share and some older self-help titles are in the public domain and may be downloaded for free.

Health and Wellness

Instituting a health and wellness program not only benefits your employees, it’s also good for your business. Research reported in the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that workplace wellness programs reduced absenteeism on average by 27 percent and healthcare costs by 26 percent.

To start a wellness program, begin with your health insurance provider. Some provide discounts on services such as gym memberships, massage, acupuncture or yoga classes. If yours doesn’t, ask a local exercise facility for some type of discount.

Bert Martinez, founder of business consulting and training firm Bert Martinez Communications in Houston, bartered services with a chain of massage centers to get free massages for his employees. A barter exchange like can help you obtain wellness services free or at lower cost.

Wellness programs don’t have to be organized, however. With your encouragement, employees can take the initiative to organize their own, such as afternoon activity breaks (a brisk stroll around the block, yogic deep breathing or stretching, for instance), as well as brown-bag lunches with invited guests, such as a local fitness expert with tips for exercises people can do at their desks.

Volunteer Opportunities

Encouraging employees to get involved in charitable activities serves many purposes. If you just want to let people volunteer for the activity of their choice, give them flexible scheduling or paid time off to do so—say, one day per month.

Another option: Make volunteer work a team-building activity by getting everyone involved in the same charity. “There are so many team-building things you can do—building a house, fixing meals or having a car wash and donating [proceeds] to a charity,” Flewelling says.

If you choose a group activity, get employee input and then pick a charity that relates to your company’s mission. For instance, a women’s clothing boutique could work with an organization that helps homeless women find jobs.

At KolbeCo, employees can volunteer or donate time to charities they choose. “[Being] socially conscious is part of our culture,” Kolbe says. “We get community recognition for our efforts, enhancing our brand and audience awareness.”

Making It Work

Whichever type of employee development program you implement, there are five secrets to success.

1.    Keep your offerings in line with your values, corporate culture and business needs.
2.    Get employees involved at all stages, from planning to implementation.
3.    Know what your goals are. “The biggest mistake business owners make is not defining their objectives,” Flewelling says.
4.    Set clear policies and guidelines, and make sure all employees understand them.
5.    Measure results. Whether by tracking turnover, surveying staff or simply gauging the mood in the office, regularly assess whether programs are having the desired effect.

Keep these tips in mind, and you’ll find that not only are your employees reaching their full potential, but your business is too.

Want to help your employees grow? Start building a personal-development library of books, audio programs they can borrow.