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Toxic workplaces are nothing new. We’ve likely all heard horror stories of offices run on terror. What is new is that fewer workers are willing to put up with such conditions. A recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) study indicated that one in five Americans have left their job in the past five years because of company culture. This toxicity is not only bad for the health of employees but also bad for business — the cost of high turnover rates in recent years has been estimated at $223 billion (again, according to SHRM).
Clearly then, keeping employees happy is critical to running a successful enterprise, but a balance needs to be achieved; we cannot become so subservient to the needs of employees that we lose sight of the needs of the business. In 2017, Google‘s apparent overcompensation of some staff members (“F-you money,” put colloquially) actually led to their departure: Many took their hefty paychecks and used them to pursue other roles.
They key, then, is finding the sweet spot where employee happiness and business expectations hold equal weight on the company see-saw — where both are able to thrive.
Why balance matters
In the technology sector, we are looking at one of the most competitive job markets in recent history. If we don’t give people a reason to stay, there will be a headhunter waiting in the wings ready to give them a reason to leave.
I learned this lesson early in my career. After investing in improving my technology skills, companies began approaching me and offering much higher salaries than I was making. I went to my manager to see if they could compete with these offers, but all I got in return was a shrug and an apology. I left the next week, tripled my salary and never looked back.
If you are underpaying employees so much that they can triple their salary elsewhere, then they should leave. However, if we allow every person who is headhunted to jump ship, we won’t be left with much talent at all. Those who stick around will most likely be under-performers unable to get a job anywhere else, and the company will be left scrambling.
We have to create an environment that fosters loyalty and motivates talent to stay on board. Of course, some businesses may not have the budget or flexibility to pay more or offer more resources, but it’s still vital to show employees that ownership is doing all it can to cultivate a happy and healthy work culture.
Finding your balance
It’s probably unnecessary to mention that all employees want to make more money, and as someone in charge of compensation, I want to pay my employees more because I want them to be happy and don’t want them to feel like they have to leave to prosper. That said, the only way I can pay them more while staying in business is to make them more productive.
This is where the key to balancing employee happiness and business expectations lies. It’s critical to first communicate clearly and transparently any responsibilities that are tied to a position. If performance does not yet match the salary they would like to make, have an open dialogue about what they need to do to make the salary they have in mind, and chart a course for them to reach those goals. These types of conversations motivate individuals to work hard and improve their skills while still giving them a reason to stay at a company because they trust that it’s invested in their long-term success.
I also make a point of being honest about the fact that while a few companies might pay at a higher tier, it might come with a toxic company culture. Such companies must pay more because that’s the only way they can get workers to stay. We strive to pay well and give people a terrific culture to work in. I’m clear about what our company can offer, and if an employee wants to leave to make a top dollar at a place they may not like, I let them go.
There will also be times when it’s in the best interest of the employee to leave, whether we’d like them to or not. Someone may get an offer that comes with new opportunities we are unable to duplicate, say. In that case, I know that moving on is likely what’s best for their long-term growth, and will support that. The goal is for each staff member to thrive in tandem with the business, and we communicate honestly to identify the circumstances that will allow that to happen, whether it’s at our company or elsewhere.
Clear communication fosters trust. Show people that you are engaged with their careers and want them to succeed, and they will understand why they are paid what they are and know what they need to do if the desire is to make more. With this clarity, trust and mutual understanding, both side’s expectations are met.
Advice for managing remote workers
Facilitating employee happiness has only gotten harder with the prevalence of remote work. To address this, we need to be intentional and check in more often. Ask them, for example, “What would make you happy?” Additionally, many employees have never met each other offline, so I have asked if they would like to be flown out to meet some of their colleagues in person. Gather feedback and implement what you can, whether that means restructuring meetings or creating more opportunities for socialization.
Understand, too, that employees’ needs vary, and so individualize any changes you make. Some people are more social, while others might be more introverted. Some may love a company-wide game night, while others may want to join an intimate book club. Put things in place that appeal to various needs, personalities and interests, and tweak them as you receive further feedback. Finally, monitor progress and output to identify what makes each individual, and the company as a whole, inspired, productive and happy.
Employees are an investment
In the past few years, we have seen a steady stream of workers leave jobs that left them feeling undervalued and underpaid. But these people are not replaceable cogs in the wheel, and high turnover rates have real business consequences. Each one is an investment, and for it to be a positive one in the long term we have to give our attention and support.
While it’s not always easy to balance the needs of employees with the simultaneously needs of business, it’s what we signed up for when we became leaders. Remember, a rising tide lifts all boats, so regard the happiness of your staff members as exactly as vital as the success of the company overall; you cannot have one without the other.