Beyond the paycheck

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Your employees’ happiness and dedication to your company depends on more than wages.

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May 31, 2016
Leslie F. Halleck
When you hire a new employee, think about what position they could hold in a few years, and help them develop professionally to get there.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Unhappy employees are costly. Poor morale can destroy teams, erode profit and ultimately destroy your business. Managing employees is already a tough job; managing their morale can be one of the toughest challenges you face as an owner, CEO or middle-manager.

From the top down

Company culture may be built from within, but it typically starts at the top. Know your limitations as an owner or manager; self-evaluation is key when it comes to running a successful business. You have to be honest with yourself about your skills and strengths. Just because you own the business, or are the CEO, it doesn’t mean you’re automatically good at managing or relating to your employees. According to Entrepreneur magazine, CEOs tend to rank at the bottom of the ladder when it comes to “emotional intelligence,” or EQ as it’s referred to in high-stakes business coaching circles. Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to identify, assess and influence one’s own feelings and those of others (BusinessDictionary.com).

Disruptors, big-idea people and profit drivers don’t always make the best people managers. If you fall into one of these categories, then you may be better off hiring direct managers that focus less on big ideas and more on relating to people. Consider splitting existing roles that require top-level managers to focus on both big-picture development and day-to-day staff management.

Warm and fuzzy?

Most businesses are rooted in a drive for profits. But if that’s the only foundation of your company culture, morale can suffer. And, if you fall into one of those personality categories I just mentioned, you may not take the most delicate approach to your work; creating a warm and fuzzy work culture may be tough for you. Regardless, you need to figure out how to anchor your company culture with respect and relatability if you want to boost productivity and morale. Again, right person, right job.

Passion over profit

Invest some time in understanding what motivates your employees to create a positive work environment.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

It’s a given that if you expect to have a talented and qualified staff, you’re going to have to pay for them. However, handing out higher salaries are something we struggle with in the green industry. Like singer Cyndi Lauper says, “Money changes everything.” Yet, it seems not everyone in our industry is totally comfortable with this philosophy. Ironically, while the biggest complaints I hear from those working in the green industry are low-pay woes, “more money” is rarely, if ever, offered when you ask the same people for solutions to low employee morale.

What is this disconnect about? Ultimately, the kind of people who tend to be passionate about plants also tend to be the kind of people that don’t directly equate money with happiness. In an unfortunate twist of fate, it’s this very “passion over profit” mentality that can contribute to keeping industry members from earning what they’re worth and what they want. That goes for green industry business owners and employees alike. When it comes to value, one rarely gets what they don’t demand or ask for.

Morale matters

So, your employees tend not to put wages over happiness and you can’t (or won’t) pay big wages: Are you seeing the big opportunity here? Considering what unhappy employees can cost you and your business, imagine what could happen instead if you got creative with how you invest in them.

When you interview employees, you’ll find that what they really want in order to be happy and fulfilled in their job isn’t necessarily a big paycheck; it’s to matter. A path to growth, respect, responsibility, travel opportunities, team outings and a voice in the day-to-day operations carry much more weight with your staff than you might think. Having a boss that offers a simple “thank you” now and then is equally important.

Listen and get vocal

Employees want to hear from you and be heard themselves. Publicly acknowledging staff for their achievements goes a long way to building personal and team pride. Listening to your employees and giving them a voice in the business also has powerful value.

Internal company marketing, such as newsletters that call out specific employee achievements and solicit employee ideas and suggestions, help maintain positive team vibes. Annie Stuart, marketing specialist at Weston Nurseries in Hopkinton, Mass., advocates employee participation in public company marketing efforts as well. “We have a blog and a weekly newsletter at Weston,” she says. “And I give any staff member that contributes photos or an article a $10 gift certificate.”

Cash isn’t always king

Employees that see room for growth and enjoy their jobs won't feel "stuck," and therefore, will be more productive.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Beyond a fair salary, cash bonuses and incentives may not always take morale to the next level. While some employees will work for and appreciate extra cash bonus incentives, others may feel they’ve already “earned” the extra cash and so the positive effect it has on their morale may be limited. Company-sponsored lunches, bonus work-at-home days, bonus vacation days, gift certificates for spa or golf outings, and the like, can make employees feel more personally appreciated than a straight cash offering. Often, these incentives can cost you less than a cash bonus or pay raise, but ultimately pay you better dividends when it comes to morale.

Networking is king

Resoundingly, “more professional networking” is one of the responses provided most often to the question, “What’s the one thing your employer could do to improve employee morale?” If you want your staff to behave like professionals in the industry, treating them as such has to start with you. One powerful employee benefit or incentive that seems to have fallen off the bargaining table over the past 10 years is that of professional memberships and travel to industry conferences. Yet, industry networking in a new environment is often what most rejuvenates an employee’s productivity and creative juices.

When I asked green industry communicator Brie Arthur for her thoughts on employee morale, she agreed about the power of networking. Her advice? “Offer professional memberships (and travel to corresponding meetings) as an employment benefit,” she says. “Networking opportunities and general ‘meetings of the minds’ encourage employees to get out of a rut, see the world in a broader perspective and gain inspiration from others in the green industry.” Arthur also notes that by sending your staff to industry meetings, you’ll also benefit from the collateral marketing outreach their presence as a company ambassador offers your company.

Weston Nurseries has combined on-site lunches and breakfasts with vendor networking opportunities. “Our garden center does a big pre-season bru-ha-ha where we invite 20-plus vendors and all the staff to meet and greet and get product training” says Stuart. “There is free lunch and breakfast and the vendors bring fun product swag like T-shirts and tools.” If you truly can’t find a way to make staff travel a possibility, then consider looking for ways to bring the networking to them.

My bet is that green industry employees may be more fulfilled with their job and a salary that’s a bit below what they’d hoped for, if their benefits package included a trip to one key out-of-town industry event each year with a corresponding membership. The investment you make for that employee to attend relevant events equates to professional training and education, and will pay your company dividends that far outweigh the cost of the trip. This type of in-kind benefit is also more affordable for you than a higher base pay or meaningful cash bonuses. Inclusion is a powerful tool.

Path to growth

Hang on to employees with good attitudes, and let go of those who are full of negativity. Those who project negative behavior will bring down others on your team.
Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Most people are geared to plan for the future, and most don’t want to get “stuck” in a job. When you put a lot of strategy and effort into hiring smart and capable people, you should strive to have their growth in mind when you hire them. If you don’t, then you’re probably going to lose them in a few years once they’ve “hit a wall.” In fact, most high achievers will prioritize a path to growth right alongside, if not before, pay grade. When employees have a job figured out, get bored, and then can’t see a way for them to grow within your company or take on new challenges, their morale and productivity can tank.

When you make a hire, think about what type of promotion or new position the hire would be suitable for in a few years. By doing so, you’ll help keep your staff pipeline moving so your company can grow and thrive, and you can continue to create new opportunities for existing staff. Can’t offer your valued employee a promotion in their pay just yet? Often, providing new responsibilities and challenges that help them grow their professional skill set is a worthy trade that can reset attitudes.

Cull the herd

Sometimes saving morale isn’t about who you bring on to the team, but rather in who you take off the team. Banishing bad attitudes is a must. Like the old saying goes, one bad apple is all it takes to spoil the barrel full. Negativity is contagious and one “negative Nancy” can enact a lot of sabotage if allowed to run free. Even if this person is a hard worker, if their negativity brings other employees down, or influences them into poor job performance, then they negate their value.

Ultimately, when someone is unhappy in their job, it’s their responsibility to make a change for the betterment of their own life. However, that type of self-selection out of the business doesn’t happen as often as it should. As the owner or manager, you’re probably going to have to take the situation into your own hands and council them off of your team.

If you want your employees to take more ownership in regard to their morale and professional growth, be sure you’ve created opportunities for them to do so with tools and a visible path to progress and positivity.

Leslie (CPH) owns Halleck Horticultural, LLC, through which she provides horticultural consulting, marketing strategy, digital content creation, branding design, advertising and social media support for green industry companies. lesliehalleck.com