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We Need to Stop Treating Our Employees Like Employees

Accept the fact that we have to treat almost anybody as a volunteer. – Peter Drucker

We have a lot to learn from leaders who attract, deploy and retain great people – without paying them. Talk to seasoned, non-profit executives (or Directors of Volunteers), and they will tell you: “Ensure that volunteers have valued work, for which there is a clear job description and easy access to the appropriate training. And we always remember that they’re giving us something. When we don’t manage them well, they just stop showing up.”

When we understand this model, it’s clear that we need to revisit everything we know about keeping the best people who work for us. We must be sure they are:

  • challenged with valued work;

  • that they have job and career growth opportunities;

  • that they’re appreciated and rewarded;

  • that the environment and culture foster an affinity between them and the organization;

  • and that they have a good boss who cultivates the challenges, opportunities, recognition, and affinity.

That’s it!

A sole reliance on pay to attract and keep the best people just doesn’t work. Through the studies by Frederick Hertzberg, we long ago learned that pay (the only substantive difference between employment and volunteerism) is, in fact, a “dissatisfier.” That is to say, pay is only a maintenance factor that helps avoid dissatisfaction. It’s not a motivator.

Paychecks can’t motivate loyalty any more than they can buy passion. We know from our own recruitment of top performers that they’ll readily leave a mediocre environment for the right opportunity. And, consistent with every national survey, pay is never the swing factor.

We do need to make sure that candidates will be fairly compensated for their contribution, and that they’re paid competitively with the market. But they won’t stay for the money. They only stay if the environment stays right – and they will leave if it’s not. (The current economy abounds with alternatives for them.)

We need to treat our people like volunteers – because they are!

If we have people who stay just for the money, we have the wrong people.

For each company’s sake, we need to stop treating our employees like “employees.”


Stan Davis is the Founding Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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