Blog: Put People Before Perks to Refocus Your Talent Strategy


Sometimes, the most valuable lessons happen when you least expect it. I was reminded of that when a recent business venture took me literally off the grid in Detroit, onto streets my GPS didn’t recognize.

As I hurried through the rain toward what I hoped was the right building, an employee on break jumped up and showed me to the right entrance. Once inside, two employees saw my confusion and came over to help, offering coffee and letting my appointment know I was there.

I had gone from feeling lost and stressed to feeling welcomed, valued, and positive about this company before my meeting even started.

Here’s the key: none of what I experienced was in the workers’ job descriptions. They were simply engaged employees who went out of their way to represent their company in the best possible light.

That’s employer brand advocacy at its best. That’s what every organization hopes for. And that’s what a true understanding of “the employee experience” can deliver for companies who  are willing to look beyond the latest fads in employee perks and place value on the people who are at the core of their business.

It’s a lesson that matters more than ever in a competitive labor market, where unemployment among high-school dropouts is at a 25-year low and workers at all levels have options.  A follow-up conversation with the site’s supervisor offered insight on what drove the workers’ response and provided some simple but powerful lessons that are worth revisiting.

  • “Perks” have their limits: Ping-pong tables, mini-bars, remote work options — while these add-ons can amplify an already strong employee experience, they can’t override a poor employer brand or create an engaged, loyal workforce. Workers expect much more from the companies they work for; and the desire for interesting work and flexibility isn’t confined to white-collar office workers.

  • Meet workers where they are: A rigid cookie-cutter approach to managing teams reveals a sorely outdated mindset. While we’re all united in our humanity, individual experiences vary widely. Forward-thinking companies understand this and know their workforce consists of people with diverse professional and personal circumstances, abilities, and motivations.

  • True differentiation comes from experiences: Unlike perks that can easily be offered by competitors, experiences are difficult to duplicate — and thus provide an effective tool for driving employee attraction and retention, especially in a tight labor market. Most employers already recognize this for higher-paid niche professions, where competition has been tight for years. Companies know that employees — especially Millennials, who now outnumber every other generation in the workforce — are looking for flexible schedules, interesting work, and a modern environment, and they won’t hesitate to leave if an employer brand doesn’t deliver on those experiences.

What’s less understood is that lower-skilled workers are also evaluating and comparing employer brands. While many companies are slow to respond and still use a punitive points-based management approach, others — like the one I visited in Detroit — are making changes that demonstrate they respect and value all of their workers.

Employer differentiators can be simple but powerful: Asking employees to call if they are going to be late rather than marking them as a no-show; offering earlier or later start times to accommodate elder or child care; or allowing employees to arrange a few days off with advance notice. Even something as basic as an extra 15-minute break in a physically demanding work environment can help retain employees and bolster an employer brand.

The desire to feel valued as a worker is the common denominator across all skill sets, income levels, and communities. It’s the one constant every employer can rely on. Be a company that values people, whether they make six figures in an office or work six days a week in a warehouse.

Train managers to deliver operational excellence while respecting the workers who are delivering company results. Then start thinking about ping-pong tables and an espresso machine. Your employees will thank you for it.

Jack Van Tiem is the Detroit territory vice president for Troy-based Kelly Services, a global leader in providing workforce solutions. He oversees the staffing and business solutions operations throughout metro Detroit, with a focus on staffing for automotive, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and technology.