How to retain good helpers with SMART incentives

Regular pay rises are expensive and do not always achieve their purpose. Workers get used to their pay packet. They may glance at it to make sure it is what they expect, but it fails to excite them. What is needed are SMART incentives. For this purpose, we are adapting an old human resources formula used to make goal-setting more specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Let us take them in reverse order. 


A yearly pay rise of even 5% becomes costly quickly. More frequent small incentives are less expensive and more motivational. While you should aim to find some positive performance to reward every couple months or so, those rewards should not be regular or expected. They need not even fall on pay day.


These rewards should be real, as in sincere, but I like to stress the relationship. If you know your helper, you can make your rewards personal to her. Suppose she tells you her daughter back home has had a baby. You don’t need to buy her a flight home. You can get her a gift card for baby clothes, or ask for her daughter’s email and send the daughter a gift card for a session with a professional photographer so that she can get a beautiful portrait of the family made for her mom. These gifts cost relatively little but they are priceless to your helper.


We all want to know that we are doing a good job. A monthly pay packet does not always feel linked to our performance. It is the same whether we have given our all that month or whether we have just done the minimum. Of course, we all look forward to pay day. But perhaps you can make your helper look forward to payday even more. Every month, take note of three things your helper has done very well. When you give her her pay packet, add a little card stating the three things you noticed her doing well. I guarantee that your helper will be paying  as much attention to what you wrote on the card as to what you wrote on the check. This is highly motivational and costs you nothing.


In teaching, there is a concept of natural consequences that we use in disciplining children. If a child steals another child’s dessert, that child should go without dessert.  We want our rewards to be linked to the behaviors that we want to see as well. Suppose your helper has 100% attendance. Offer her a treat like cinema tickets or something similarly leisurely to encourage her to relax since she works so hard. It is even better if you can mention that there is that film she wanted to see. If she is always on time, you can buy her a nice watch. If she keeps your place super clean, offer her a spa day where she can get herself clean. 


Except for the timing of incentives, which should be frequent, but irregular, most of the incentives are specific. They are specific to your helper. They address her work life balance. They are specific to you. They reflect what you want to see in your helper’s work. And they are specific to the work at hand. The reward fits the task. As you can see, incentives do not have to cost you a lot. It takes a little bit more time and thought to offer rewards in this way, but most employers enjoy it.


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