The VIP treatment

Distinguish your company from the competition by including unique and creative incentives.

By Sue Sodek


Is your company losing workers left and right? It’s a problem plaguing most Canadian employers these days. Perhaps at one point in time, the promise of a steady paycheque and a gold watch at 65 was enough to keep people loyal throughout their career; sadly, those days are long over. Now, for employers in challenging markets such as the skilled trades, or for those who wish to attract and retain younger workers, the burning question is not just where can I find them, but what can I do to keep them?

One place many job seekers are turning their focus in this post-pandemic, highly-competitive job market is on the incentives a prospective employer offers. It has become quite common during the early stages of recruitment for prospective hires to ask what sort of benefits will be available should they get the job. And post hire, longer-term employees are looking for more than modest prescription coverage or some new glasses every two years so if that is all you offer, it may be time to broaden your horizons.

If you are a business looking to hire and retain new workers, you can quickly distinguish yourself from the competition by including unique and creative incentives that are valued by your employees. Although often painted in popular media as fickle or difficult, candidates today are just being savvy jobseekers who are far less likely to commit to any one company unless they see a clear advantage to doing so. Nowadays, it’s the total package you offer to prospective hires and current employees that can tip the scales in your favour, even when an offer for more money comes along.

Before we proceed, heed this warning: if you pay less than the average for your area, or have bad managers in place, none of the following will make a difference. By a substantial margin, research demonstrates that companies which consistently attract and retain the best workers pay a fair market rate and have good managers in place who are able to communicate clear policies and support their staff. Incentive programs are not a band aid for poor management, but they are an additional weapon to add to your already established arsenal of sound business practices. We’ll assume you have already built a strong company culture. You have developed trust and mutual respect with your workforce. You allow employees to grow and take on new responsibilities, and you leave the door open to suggestions for improvement. And yet, you find you are still struggling to attract and retain good people. In a marketplace of unprecedented competition for new hires, there are small changes you can make that will have big impacts.


Creative ways employers set their companies apart

 RSP contributions – Regardless of the size of your company or workforce, you can set up a retirement savings plan and offer this perk as a way of minimizing your worker’s tax burden, without the long-term hassle of establishing and managing a formal pension plan. Employee and company contributions can be set through a variety of providers; speak to a trusted financial advisor about setting investment goals and boundaries around withdrawals.

Debt repayment – It’s a sobering fact that Canadians carry more debt per household than any other G7 nation. Credit cards, lines of credit or student loan payments are a monthly struggle many of your employees are facing. Some companies are choosing to give their employees a chance to climb out of debt by setting up payroll deduction plans, or offering matching contributions to encourage staff to pay off their loans. Similar in nature to setting up an RSP program, contact a trusted financial advisor for further information and to ensure you’ve covered your bases.

Professional development – Investing in the development of your workforce is always a wise move, and benefits both employee and company. Whether it’s to upgrade their skills for their current role or to prepare them for their next promotion, staff will feel supported and valued when money is invested in their education, which in turn leads to loyalty and longevity. And the cost doesn’t have to be a burden borne strictly by the business. There are federal and provincial government grants available to employers that support professional development.

Equipment upgrades – Employees who are required to supply their own tools or equipment, both those just starting out and those that have been in their roles for some time, will definitely appreciate an upgrade on the things they use most often. Consider speaking with suppliers and dealers to arrange bulk discounts, or offer an allowance towards common items to allow your people to secure the best quality tools to get the job done. A well-equipped workforce is safer and happier.

Time off – On the grand list of Things Your Employees Want Most, “paid time off” comes in a close second to making more money. Take a look at your vacation entitlement. Do your people still need to wait for a full five years before they get an additional week off?

More employers are starting new hires with three weeks straight away. Make sure your entitlements are keeping pace with the market in your area, and make sure you are encouraging your staff to actually take the time off (some employers are even making deals with travel agents to encourage employee travel – an expensive but intriguing idea for some).

Flex time – If you have the ability to do so, think about offering stable but non-standard working hours. Of particular importance to working parents and those with challenging home commitments, the flexibility to  work outside of standard business hours will always build employee loyalty and put you ahead of the game when it comes to retention. If the past two years have done little else, lock downs and restrictions have demonstrated how much work can be accomplished outside of 9 to 5 and away from traditional workplace settings.

Birthdays off – A (relatively) inexpensive and quick way to inject some fun into your policies and procedure’s manual, offering your employees their birthday as a paid day off (either on or around the actual day) can be an easy way to gain points as a progressive employer who recognizes their staff as more than just another cog in the machine. Put some thought into coverage before putting a policy like this in place – if a day off for each employee isn’t workable, perhaps a paid day on your company anniversary might suit.

Food – Aim beyond the traditional pizza-party-in-the -breakroom. Take them out, host a potluck or barbecue, or award gift cards for food delivery services when your team is exceeding expectations. Shared meals are an especially good incentive for those employers trying to foster comradery and teamwork. By breaking bread together and providing a shared experience, staff will feel a more valued part of the bigger whole. Remember to be sensitive to holidays, cultural differences and allergies and/or food intolerances – what is a treat for some may be the opposite for others. When in doubt, ask.

Wellness initiatives – Another item that can be done on a modest budget are incentives that aim to improve an employee’s physical or mental health. It can be as small as setting aside a few minutes each work day for stretch or meditation breaks, or as big as contacting a local gym and arranging for a group membership. You can work with your benefit plan provider to negotiate for extended coverage, or invite a representative in to let employees know what supports are already on offer. Given the events of the past few years and the increased focus on mental and physical health, simply sharing the information on their current coverage may be enough to motivate and encourage your staff to stick around.


Final points to consider

Before you charge ahead, take the time to think about your current staff and their demographics, which may help point you in the right direction of which ideas to explore. A student loan repayment scheme might not seem worthwhile to an aging workforce, and flex hours might not be a perk if your business already runs on shift work.

Once you’ve got some ideas in mind, talk to your staff. From your top performers on down to the ones with one foot out the door, there are no better judges of what types of incentives that will have value than the people directly impacted. Survey your people formally or informally and have them weigh in.

Make sure you keep tax implications in mind. Depending on your province and the incentive you’re offering, you may be adding to your (or your employee’s) tax burden. Do your research before offering perks that might cost you more than you intend.

And of course, know that no incentive will work if it’s not communicated, achievable and actually valued. Ask your employees if it is something they are interested in, give them the details they need to help you make decisions and you’ll be well on your way to retaining your best players. Regardless of the age of the employee or how long they’ve been with you, when your staff feel appreciated, recognized and valued, they are happier, more productive, and more likely to stick around. What more can you ask for?

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