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An Offer They Can't Refuse

Our Employee Management Expert shows you how to compete with the big guys when attracting and retaining employees.

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Q: I run a small tech company, and with the job market so hot, I'm worried about retaining employees. I can't compete with big companies in terms of salary, stock options and the like. What motivators can I offer my people that don't cost an arm and a leg?

A: Good news: Most employees don't leave an employer for more money or stock options. They leave because of the way they are treated every day. If day-to-day relationships are contentious and managed by negative reinforcement, the thought of being treated better is what will motivate an employee to accept another job or consider the benefits of increased income with another employer.

What people say they want in a job has changed little in the past 40 years. While few people will turn down more money--and most people want more of it--it's never the number-one thing people say they want in a job. The top five job qualities discovered or revealed in most surveys almost always relate to positive reinforcement in one way or another. Among the top five are such factors as recognition for accomplishments, meaningful work and effective co-workers. As a group, young people actually seem to be less concerned with money than their predecessors. They're more interested than any previous generation in a company's values as they relate to the environment and the community.

The most important thing you can do to retain employees is to establish a good working relationship with them. You do that by finding ways to increase positive reinforcement for good work every day. Since you alone can't provide all the positive reinforcement necessary to sustain high performance, you need to encourage all your employees to reinforce their co-workers' performance whenever appropriate. No good work should go unnoticed. To the extent possible, no improvement should go unnoticed or without a positive comment. No one likes to feel that his or her efforts and accomplishments are taken for granted. You can count on the fact that if people aren't told overtly and clearly they're appreciated, they'll assume the opposite.

When you've developed good daily relationships between management and employees and between peers, recognition and rewards programs will be more effective. If you don't have good ongoing relationships, these programs are a waste of time and money.

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One of the biggest mistakes made in the area of reinforcement, recognition and reward is to assume there's one thing that will appeal to or satisfy everyone. There's nothing that reinforces or rewards everyone, including money. I always remind my clients, "Quit looking for one universal reinforcer. It doesn't exist." Reinforcement, recognition and rewards are a personal, individual matter. Therefore, you need to know what's important to every employee--what they like, what their long- and short-term career goals are, and what their expectations are regarding their daily responsibilities.

You may find that showing an interest in employees' families, hobbies or dreams for the future can be very motivating. You can also solicit their ideas about the business. Allow them to earn time off. Occasionally give them a small tangible item to thank them for a job well done.

While these things should not be a substitute for good pay, you may be surprised how some of these simple things will provide incentives that will not only keep people efficient and effective, but will also keep them on the payroll.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.

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