Bolster your benefits package? Introduce flexible hours? Bump up a salary or two? No doubt, these are effective ways to keep your employees happy, but according to Liz Farr, chief content creator for Farr Communications, one of the best ways to help retain valued employees might also be one of the easiest and cheapest: simply saying “Thank you!” In this episode, Farr discusses ways to thank employees, whether these programs are more important to younger staff members, and what it says to your talent roster when you don’t prioritize recognition.
By: Bill Hayes, Pennsylvania CPA Journal Managing Editor
In a competitive job marketplace, firms and companies must make every effort to keep outside operations from attracting their best and brightest. However, it could be that one of the most important things that businesses can do to keep their employees happy is also one of the simplest: saying thank you. Today we are with Liz Farr, chief content creator of Farr Communications, to discuss effective ways employers can recognize their employees and the particular way such recognition can motivate employees.
How important do you think employee recognition is for the current accounting workforce or employees in general? Do you think this sort of recognition is of particular importance to younger members of the workforce or does it pretty much go throughout generations?
[Farr] I would say that recognition is one of the most important things that any employer can do. And this is backed up by a book that I just read called Nine Lies About Work by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, who dug really deeply into data from the Gallup organization and from organizations like ADP and Cisco. And they were looking into some of the accepted truths or dogma about how work should function and whether they were actually true or not.
One of the things they looked at was, do people need feedback? And instead what they discovered is the truth is that people need attention. And the way they came to this, one of the stories that they have in this book is a study that was done in the 1920s and 1930s at a, I think it was an electrical manufacturing facility. And what they did was they were trying to figure out how to make the employees more productive. They tried turning on more lights. Well, boom, there was a big jump in productivity.
That went on for a while, and then it kind of tapered off. They said, "Well, what would happen if we took the lights back down to where they were?" Boom! There was another big jump in productivity. They did this with all kinds of things. They did it with noise, cleaning. I can't remember what else, but the only conclusion that they could come up with is that the employees were responding to management just paying attention to them, just trying to give them something that would make their job a little bit more comfortable.
And as far as age goes, this has nothing to do with younger workers or the millennials versus Gen X. This has nothing to do with it. It's just the younger workers are more willing to call us out. My experience, now, I came to accounting kind of late in life. I'm right at the cusp of Gen X or baby boomer, so I'm definitely not a millennial accountant. I remember when I started at one firm, the founder would walk through the office when he came in and he would just say “Good morning” to everybody as he passed their office door or their cube, and that was just a nice thing.
Then on birthdays, when it was your birthday, you could get any kind of treat that you wanted. They would go and say, "So we're going to go to this bakery today. What is your favorite kind of cake or pie or whatever?" And they'd bring it back to the office and have a little party and then you'd take the leftovers home. Then, anytime there was a work anniversary or somebody new came in or somebody left, there was always some kind of small gathering. There was always a party just to recognize that there was a change or to recognize that somebody had been there for a year or two years or five or 10 or however long.
Then, ownership changed and the recession hit about the same time, and all of that recognition just disappeared. There were monthly group parties with cupcakes for birthdays and anniversaries and whatever was going on, whatever happened in the last month. And big milestone anniversaries were just ignored. There were four of us at one time that hit our 10-year anniversary about the same time, and nothing happened until about four to six months after that. That was really kind of annoying, and so morale dipped and people left. What do you expect?
When you're recognized in this fashion by an employer, what kind of feeling or motivation do you think it gives the recognized employee?
[Farr] First of all, it just tells the employee that you matter to the organization and that somebody noticed how hard they were working. It makes people feel like our hard work is going to be rewarded, and so it makes you more willing to go the extra mile because you know that somebody will notice that. You know that you're not being taken for granted. You're being appreciated. And it really gives you a good feeling that you're part of a team that really cares about you personally.
What are some effective ways employers can go about recognizing their employees? I wonder if there are any particular recognition techniques that you would say have the best sort of cost/reward ratio. In other words, they don't cost a lot, but they make an employee feel great. What do you think that would be?
[Farr] Some of the best ways don't cost anything but a little bit of time and effort. For example, just saying hello and how are you when you see people, asking them about their family. Regular check-ins are another thing. Just a regular sit-down with everybody on your team, maybe 10 or 15 minutes once a week, once a month, something like that, and just asking how things are and how you can help them.
Another thing that's really important is having some kind of public outlet for thanking people for doing a really good job at something. A company that I work with a lot these days, FloQast – It's a software company out of Los Angeles – they have a Slack gratitude channel, and what anybody can do is just go into Slack and drop a “#Gratitude” and say, "I just want to thank Joanie for doing an awesome job in helping me with this marketing promo. It wasn't anything that was her responsibility. It wasn't even her department, but she went out of her way and helped me."
Another thing that really makes a big difference is a handwritten note of praise. During my time as a CPA, I got a couple handwritten notes from clients for doing a really good job at something, and I've kept those over all these years. I put them on my shelf. That was really something meaningful. Another thing you could do is put a profile of that team member on the firm website about how they went the extra mile to help a client out. This is good marketing anyway because that tells your prospective clients all the great things that your firm can do.
Other things you can do are just recognize events in somebody's personal life – marriage or child or buying a new house or somebody who ran a marathon or went on some amazing trip. A nice thing to do is to have an employee of the month or quarter and reward them with something that makes their life easier, maybe a parking spot or money or extra time-off. Really key to that is a public explanation of why they won, because that tells everybody what this person did that was so extraordinary and gives people ideas for what they can do.
If you have a remote team, then recognition is even more important. I think it's a good idea to find ways to get everyone together regularly, even if it's just a Zoom meeting. I have a client in New Zealand, and they invited me to their Christmas Eve toast, which I thought was really nice. More expensive things would be paying for training for somebody that would help them get some skills that would help them advance in their careers, something that's not just the typical CPE, but maybe paying for them to go to speaker training or learning a new technology or going to leadership training or hiring a coach for them. There are so many things that that firms can do to recognize their employees and you just have to be creative and find something that's meaningful to the employees.
As you said, you worked for an employer who did these sort of things and then sort of let it tail off and, next thing you know, they weren't doing them. When an organization does these sort of recognitions, but then lets them slip, what sort of message do you think that sends to their employees?
[Farr] It tells you that you're no longer considered an asset to the firm, but you're just a cost center, and you feel like you're just a burden. You're not appreciated. The firm isn't interested in my growth. They don't care about my career trajectory. You just feel like another widget in the box, something that they can change out for somebody else. You definitely think that the grass is greener.
For the organization that's listening to this and they're thinking, "We don't have the time for this" or "It's too expensive," even though you've talked about some very cost-manageable things that can be done, what are the benefits that they're not thinking about that could override some of these concerns?
[Farr] First of all, as everybody knows, there just aren't enough good accountants to go around for all the positions available. And so if you've got some good people who are a good cultural fit, then you need to do everything that you can to hang on to them. I suggest people think about the consequences if on the one hand somebody leaves. If somebody leaves, then you've got to replace them with somebody to perform the tasks that they did or spread those tasks out among your existing team. I don't know about you, but I was always working way too many hours and doing way too much work, so that's not a great plan. Hiring new people is really hard. Onboarding is hard. And if you bring in a new person to replace an experienced person who left, it might be a couple of months or more before they really get up to speed and can really replace the work that was done by the person that left.
And another thing to think about is, what if they stay? But since you're not giving them any recognition, they may not be motivated to do their best work anymore. They're not going to go the extra mile. They're not going to give white-glove client treatment anymore. They may be making mistakes because they're not careful anymore. And because they're giving clients poor service, those clients may leave. So this really can be serious, whether they leave or they stay. And really, I can't think of anything more cost-effective to keep your people happy then simply recognizing them.