Thought Leadership

Hiring? Time to Get Personal

By Karen Cates, PhD

They don’t show. They show up late. They show up on time, but they don’t get much done. They’re working from home, but how can you be sure? What are you going to do, fire them? Who will do this job if they don’t? Welcome to the employment dilemmas faced by many companies in today’s tight labor market.

What’s the solution? Employers searching for the holy grail of employee commitment and performance are going to have to go beyond the basics of employee motivation and start getting personal.

Get the money part right

Enticing workers with money is a start. Research has shown that increasing the minimum wage can reduce turnover and increase safety and productivity. In salaried positions paying less than $30,000 per year, this research may also apply. But what about higher-level employees who seem to be phoning it in? Increasing wages can matter a lot if an employee’s pay doesn’t reflect the market rate. Being paid a market wage demonstrates respect for the position and the employee.

Good enough, then? Not quite. Pay increases alone can be motivating, but regular, periodic raises become the status quo quickly. Performance-based raises and bonuses can drive outcomes if employees feel the goal is attainable and can influence the metrics used to calculate the reward. But setting up a felt-fair system can be daunting: who will determine what constitutes relevant results and the actual level of performance of each employee? How will you factor in swings in industry and in national and global economics?

Employers need to get the money part right, to be sure. But attracting, engaging, and retaining employees often takes more.

Get personal

To build commitment and performance, employers need to focus on the employee’s entire work experience. For every employee, there is a unique and complex value proposition that makes them happy day to day. To maximize commitment and performance, your job is to discover and cultivate what makes each team member tick.

  • Hire for passion: Young professionals enter their fields for many reasons, but it is those with a passion for ideas and ideals who bring the most energy to their work. Ask job candidates what is important to them and seek people who share your organization’s values.
  • Actively develop your leaders: People are motivated to work for a leader they trust and who provides them with opportunities to grow. Those leaders care: they coach and teach; they involve others in decision-making; they focus on their team rather than on themselves; and they empower their people to do the work. “Developing others” should be a core competency of your organization’s leaders.
  • Engage in the virtuous cycle: To fully engage your people at work, clarify work expectations. Take time to learn about employees’ personal situations, and continually experiment with how work gets done. Measure results, revise and repeat. Consider flexibility in work hours and work-from-home arrangements to help employees manage child or elder care. Can you offer concierge and other services that help your people focus on work while the business of life gets taken care of? The key to successful programs is to focus on outcomes, not process: be explicit about expectations for performance, but be flexible about how the work gets done. This careful blending of work and life creates a virtuous cycle of loyalty and performance.
  • Make technology a strategic priority: Archaic operating systems, software and hardware that don’t interface, policies that limit technology time — all of these can conspire to de-energize your employees. Make sure you set expectations about face time if workers seem over-reliant on email and texts and other electronic communications. But don’t overlook the motivational advantage of up-to-date technological systems, leveraging employees’ platform expertise and work-from-home technologies.

Engaging today’s workforce takes more than money. It means paying attention to the individuals who work for you and creating a work experience that blends your needs and values with theirs. When employees feel respected and responsible, when they have the right tools and encouraging leaders, the employment experience rises to a new and personal level.


Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. For nine years, she taught Negotiations, Human Resource Management, and Organization Behavior courses to MBA and Executive MBA students. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organization alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning, and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Energizing People for Performance program.

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