This is about employee engagement. It all started at a meeting with peer managers. Our non-profit is going through some belt-tightening next year and we were getting some specific guidance. In particular, it had been noted that some teams were doing an awful lot of company-funded holiday-related activity in December. I was curious, since that is not what happens in our library and archives. As we went around the table, I learned a lot about how other managers approach year-end rewards.

I’ve worked in non-profits for a long time. Whether the American Bar Association or a membership library, your salary comes from some lawyer’s pocket. They may not see you as their employee, but you’re not employed without them. There is a fundamental tension in non-profits of any kind. On the one hand, you have a fiduciary duty to be careful with that money, whether it’s given voluntarily or not. On the other, it is soon apparent that it is much easier to spend someone else’s money.

Roundtables are a useful way to surface what other people are doing under similar circumstances. It’s one of my favorite opportunities at a law library conference. So when one of the managers said, “I’d like to know what everyone else is doing,” I thought to myself, “me too!”

Benchmark or Caution

A small digression. I’m not a big fan of benchmarking because I think you can end up doing comparisons that ignore your own circumstances. When law firms or law schools or non-profits look at similarly situated organizations to figure out where they should be, my experience is that it’s counter-productive.

The comparison ends up doing one of two things. It’s used to show how unique and special your organization is, so change isn’t necessary or outlying behavior is acceptable. Or it does the opposite, and you adopt something because everyone else is. This adoption can ignore the way your organization is different, even if it’s not wholly unique.

At a manager’s level, this can be a way for people to get new ideas. If the participating group comes from unaffiliated organizations, that’s ideal. That way no-one is comparing their actions to someone in the same organization.

When the comparisons are between inter-organizational teams, it may be less idea sharing and more seeing how cautious to be. If team A is doing one thing and team B is doing another, the distance between those things can create perception issues.

That’s what became apparent in our internal roundtable.

Rewards and Entitlements

Fundamentally, the activities we were discussing were performance management related. We weren’t talking about whether teams had done well or poorly. But there was a nexus between working hard and expected rewards.

I’ve posted a number of times about performance management and rewards. I’m especially opposed to bonuses, which have been shown to be a negative tool. I’ve been fortunate to have highly engaged teams and highly performing managers. When these teams make an extra effort, it’s not taken for granted. It certainly doesn’t wait until year end to be rewarded.

While the recognition may be smaller, it’s timely and constantly applied. The most cost-effective management tool is to say “Thank you” as often as you can. Larger recognition (bonuses, etc.) can then be left to events or effort that deserve them.

It became clear as we went round the table that our teams did fewer activities at the holidays. My peer managers were:

  • purchasing a gift for every staff person
  • purchasing movie tickets for every team member
  • taking small teams to restaurants for a lunch
  • taking lawyer-based teams to restaurants separately
  • catering food

Someone used the word – playfully – “Scrooge” when I explained that we didn’t do any of those things. None of our holiday-related activities were company funded. Sometimes the staff would do a potluck, but it relied on staff organizing it and all of us bringing in dishes. Perhaps libraries are used to being more frugal.

Fundamentally, the point isn’t what they were doing or whose money they were using. It was the outcome. The point is, what’s the point?

Engaged Teams

Every manager has to make this judgment call. What actions do I take that impact my team’s engagement? Do they work harder for food? for bonuses? for words of appreciation? for opportunities to develop professionally?

The best opportunities are when your team will stay engaged for the things you can do for them for free. These include:

  • ensuring their work environment challenges them in ways they value
  • creating an environment (and team / community) they want to be in every day
  • recognizing their work directly, by saying “Thank you” and explaining exactly what you are thanking them for
  • recognizing their work broadly, to their managers or in team meetings or to people above you, so the recognition shines a greater light

I think this is true in any law library environment. There is a lot you can do without spending a dime. So once you’ve done those things, you then need to decide whether a dime is worth spending.

If you spend money, do you improve engagement?

In a for-profit environment, what you spend may impact what the firm keeps. But in a non-profit (government, academic, subscription) law library, what you spend comes directly from dues or taxes or tuition. The pot of money only grows if the burden on the funder (lawyer, law student, tax payer) goes up.

When you spend to support engagement, that is a long term decision. If you do it one year and not the next, you may lose engagement. If you create the impression that the spending is tied to activity (work harder, more rewards), you can cause activity to lag if the spending does.

That’s the issue with bonuses. At some point the connection between the reward and the work becomes attenuated, and so meaningless, or the reward becomes expected regardless of the work. We saw this with a $50 cash gift. When our CEO cancelled it, the organization’s morale took a nearly universal hit. It was both the lost money and the negative recognition (we aren’t worth $50).

This belt-tightening may have the same impact. Teams that were used to wining and dining on the corporate dime may resent the loss. The amount doesn’t matter; it’s the giving and taking that does.

For what it’s worth, if you need approval to be cheap, to be a Scrooge, you can use me as an example. Don’t benchmark what I do! But look at your teams and your environment. What can you do that is (a) sustainable for the long term and (b) will create engaged employees. Then do that.