Stop Using the “Goodies and Gimmicks” Approach to Retention

Imagine a male colleague of yours coming to you for advice on how to save his troubled marriage. He shares his strategy: “She’s thinking of leaving me, so I’ve got to find the perfect present that will make her want to stay. I’m thinking a Caribbean vacation, or maybe I’ll get her a Mazda Miata. Do you think either of these would be the ticket, or is there something else I should consider?” Wouldn’t your jaw drop in disbelief when you heard this? The question itself would be a pretty good clue as to why your colleague is having “spouse retention” problems. But even though his approach is admittedly absurd, it bears a haunting resemblance to the way many?? if not most?? organizations currently approach employee retention. For instance, how often have you been asked “So, what kind of program can you put together to help us reduce turnover?” Or, “I know morale’s pretty low around here. How about putting together an employee appreciation day?” Managers and HR professionals who ask these questions have missed the point. Managers and HR professionals whose “retention strategy” revolves around employee-of-the-month awards, cool prizes, Fun Fridays, and other things that money can buy have missed the point. Employee satisfaction and loyalty do not come from goodies and gimmicks. When organizations focus primarily on goodies and gimmicks, they usually end up with one of two unpleasant outcomes. First, they inadvertently foster a cynical, jaded workforce that views these efforts with distrust, because their daily experience contradicts the intended messages of the gala events and “we appreciate you” programs. The second unpleasant outcome is the spoiled, “what have you done for me lately?” workforce that sits back and waits for management to surpass its last bribery campaign. There’s nothing wrong with fun events, prizes, and other goodies. But these should be the frosting, not the cake?? and when dealing with people issues, we must never confuse the frosting for the cake. Returning to our hypothetical example of the colleague who wants to give his spouse a gift: There’s obviously nothing wrong with giving gifts. It’s just that he’s thinking that applying a “frosting solution”?? a material possession?? will solve a “cake problem”?? relationship needs not being met. If these needs aren’t met, no amount of gift giving can make a difference. Creating a mutually satisfying, committed relationship with your employees also requires more than just material solutions. Whether you frame your goal as “Improving Retention,” “Increasing Morale,” or “Becoming the Employer of Choice,” your strategy should focus on addressing those essential human needs that, when fulfilled, lead to satisfied, committed, and productive workers. Although age and other demographic variables will shape each individual’s needs and desires, some needs are universal. In this article series, we’ll focus on six human needs, both because of the central role they play in employee satisfaction and retention and because many employers do a poor job of addressing them. These critical human needs are:

  1. Having pride in one’s work and employer
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  3. Doing work that has meaning
  4. Understanding the goal and one’s role in meeting it
  5. Being a player and not just a hired hand
  6. Having the chance to experience efficacy
  7. Being heard

When management and employees co-create a work experience that satisfies these essential human needs, the organization doesn’t need a bevy of goodies and gimmicks to make coming to work rewarding. It’s like people and their hobbies. No one has to pay you to engage in your hobbies?? doing them is reward enough. In the next two parts of this article, we will use these fundamental human needs as a lens with which to examine your organization. Each section will include a set of questions you can use to guide your conversations with your management team. I will also strongly recommend that you create an Employee Advisory Council and involve it in all aspects of your retention initiative, beginning with the assessment phase. The information derived from this exploration will help you formulate a retention strategy that has substance?? a “cake” solution, not a “frosting” solution.

David Lee is the founder and principal of HumanNature@work and the creator of Stories That Change. He's an internationally recognized authority on organizational and managerial practices that optimize employee performance, morale, and engagement. He is also the author of "Managing Employee Stress and Safety," as well over 60 articles and book chapters. You can download more of his articles at HumanNature@work, contact him at, or follow him on Twitter at