Good benefits and pay aren’t enough to keep your employees

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Several years ago when Laura Hamill was working at a large tech company an email blast was sent out from the CEO outlining the company’s values and culture. The reaction from the employees probably wasn’t what the company had expected.

“You could hear laughter down the hallway [after the email went out] because of how ridiculous the values were,” says Hamill, who is now chief people officer at Limeade, a software company focused on elevating the employee experience through improved workplace culture. “There was no acknowledgement of where we actually were at the time.”

The value that had her colleagues laughing hardest had to do with working as a team and being collaborative. The employees were incredulous over the gap between what the employer wanted and what they were actually experiencing.

“Culture is so hard because it’s not about buying a bunch of cool stuff. It’s about doing the hard work to really make sure that employees, managers and leaders are all behaving in ways that are consistent with the culture you want to create,” Hamill says.

Amazon is arguably one of the most prominent examples of the gap between the organization and its employees when it comes to culture. In July, while millions of eager shoppers were busy filling their Amazon carts on Prime Day, hundreds of workers at a warehouse in Minnesota went on strike in protest of their working conditions, which numerous reports have alleged to be dangerous and inhumane.

Amazon has denied all such claims. The company issued a statement saying it provides “great employment opportunities with excellent pay.” But the Amazon issue raises broader concerns about workplace culture and what employers need to do in order to maintain a positive environment.

When employees feel their company cares they are twice as engaged at work, four times less likely to suffer from burnout and nine times more likely to stay with the organization, according to data from Limeade.

Laura Hamill has spent the bulk of her career studying ways to better understand and measure culture in the workplace. She recently spoke with Employee Benefit News to discuss why good benefits and pay aren’t enough to retain employees anymore.

What is workplace culture?

Most organizations don’t really understand that culture is the deeper values and beliefs of the company. It’s not the stuff on the surface. It’s not the ping pong table, it’s not the margarita party, it’s not the cool benefits employees get. It’s really what is valued and how we behave and treat each other behind closed doors.

What I see most organizations doing is thinking about culture at the perk level. But, it’s really trying to get to the meaningful level of work, and it’s a lot to do with how people are treated.

What kind of culture should employers strive for?

We have really been focusing our efforts on is the idea of creating a culture where employees know that employers care about them. Organizations have to think about their intention around their culture. What we see first is most organizations don’t even know what their own culture is. Employers may say on their website that they want to have a certain kind of culture, but all of their employees are laughing about that behind closed doors because they know the organization is nowhere close to achieving that idea.

What mistakes do employers make when it comes to workplace culture?

The most important thing to start with is the company must understand what they are aspiring to from a cultural perspective. They need to do the work around figuring out how they need to treat each other within the organization. What do managers need to do? What do leaders need to do? How do we articulate to everybody so they are 100% clear on the standards and expectations we have for how we are with each other? Most organizations completely skip that step and go right to putting a couple of cute things on their website. Make it really simple and say these are the standards and expectations we have for how we are with each other. We need these because we want our business to be successful, and this is how we connect everybody’s individual behavior to the success of the business.

What specific tactics can employers take to improve workplace culture while also considering their benefit programs?

Most organizations are not being intentional. They are not thinking about being an architect of how people are with each other within the organization. Instead they just kind of let it be.

I wonder if organizations had a culture department that had as much funding as a benefits department, where might we be? It’s almost odd that there are organizations that are focused on pet insurance, but they are not focused on being intentional about their culture. These perks that we think we should offer, which in many cases don’t get that much use, are nice to have but it’s ignoring what I think is the most important benefit of an organization, which is the culture. People are attracted to an organization, and they stay because of how the organization makes them feel.

Of course there are benefits that matter and there are the basic fundamental benefits, but there is so much of an overemphasis on these surface level things. There isn’t as much investment of resources around the things that matter more. I encourage benefits professionals to think about their clients. Are they creating a culture with these perks, and do companies really tout their culture as a primary attractor?

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