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KEEPING WORKERS HAPPY IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER

Sometimes, it's the little things that go a long way toward keeping workers happy.

A thank you note from the boss on a job well done can do the trick nicely. Or try taking a worker out to lunch after a particularly impressive accomplishment. Maybe even give a father a pair of tickets to this weekend's hockey game so he can take his son after spending last weekend holed up at the office on a big project.

In short, it's not always about money. In fact, keeping money completely out of the picture sometimes can help managers to make employees feel all their hard work and effort really is appreciated.

That may sound hard to believe, but it's the mantra that Bob Nelson preaches. And these days, with companies cutting back yet still grumbling that really good workers are hard to find, Nelson says keeping workers happy is more important than ever.

"This is smart business. To put back what you took so it's there the next time when you go to draw upon it," says Nelson, a worker motivation guru from San Diego and the author of a host of business books, including 1001 Ways to Reward Employees and 1001 Ways to Energize Employees.

"Most companies refuse to recognize employees for doing what they were hired to do. They say that's why they're paying them," Nelson says. "Most employees today say the only time they hear from their boss is when they make a mistake."

And that's a big mistake, Nelson says.

Making sure that workers are happy and feel that their hard work is appreciated can go a long way toward building loyalty and productivity. "When it's just another job, people have a greater tendency to leave for just a little more pay," says Nelson, who was in town last week to give a seminar to about 300 local managers.

In fact, only about a third of all workers feel an obligation to stay with their current employer, according to a 1999 study by the Hudson Institute, an Indianapolis-based public policy research group, and Walker Information.

Maybe that's partly because a lot of the more conventional ways companies try to reward workers end up missing the mark. The programs get old after a while and lose their punch. "Vary the incentive," Nelson says. "The fifth time someone gets a certificate, it doesn't mean as much."

Even worse, workers might start to feel like those free tickets or the doughnuts you bring in each Friday are something they're entitled to, rather than a reward for unusually good work.

That's why Nelson isn't a fan of "employee of the month" programs. "It starts out as a program to reward the best and the brightest, and it turns into an endurance contest," he says. "Eventually, everyone's going to get it. As a result, the meaning is lost."

The same goes for companies that give all their workers a turkey at the holidays. Holiday office parties or employee recognition days aren't much of a help either, he says.

"I find a lot of companies are stuck in that," Nelson says. "When you do recognition for everybody, it doesn't feel special for anyone."

And while we all could use some extra cash, Nelson says handing a worker an extra $50 or $100 for a job well done might not have the same impact as a restaurant gift certificate that would allow the employee's spouse and children to share the recognition.

"Money comes and goes. It has no residual value. It has no trophy value," he says. "But making a connection on the home front can be a very powerful thing to do."

That's why Nelson says the best way to reward workers is to do it personally and do it right away. "The best things are personal and immediate," he says. "The worst things are once a year type of things that are formal."

And even then, the delivery makes a difference. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, used to give long-time employees a clock after they'd been at the company for a certain number of years. But a company survey found that workers didn't put much value on the clock, which was delivered with no fanfare. Often, workers would simply find it sitting on their desk one day.

"That's not recognition," Nelson says.

But Johnson & Johnson isn't alone. One local manager says his company ordered clocks to recognize workers who had been with the firm for 10 years, only to have the clocks arrive a year late and without the batteries they needed to run.

Instead, Nelson likes a more informal, more spontaneous approach. "Take someone out to lunch or bring in a pizza to celebrate some success," he says. "Tie the recognition to the performance."

"No one really values praise that's general. But when it's specific, it has meaning. It has power," he says.

To do that effectively, though, individual managers need the power -- and the tools -- to do it. It doesn't have to take much, either -- often just a tiny budget to buy a few Starbucks coupons or some restaurant gift certificates.

"It's not hard to do any of this stuff," Nelson says. "But you have to be ready for the opportunities to come up so you can jump on them."

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