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Morale Boosters Gone Wrong: Costly Mistakes to Avoid in the Workplace


In 2013, Gallup found that 72 percent of U.S. employees are disengaged at work—meaning they lack motivation, and are not as likely to invest extra effort to achieve organizational goals. In fact, U.S. businesses lose about $550 billion annually as a result of disengagement.

It would follow that employee engagement is key for a productive and profitable business. But while much has been written about tactics that can prevent burnout in the workplace, some companies, in their efforts to engage employees, may actually be driving them away.

I spoke to several small business owners to learn about intended morale boosters that actually backfired. Here’s what not to do to increase your employees’ engagement levels.

Providing ‘Perks’ That Nobody Wants

Sometimes, in an effort to create a fun atmosphere for employees, employers may think it’s necessary to offer fringe benefits. After all, companies like Google have topped the lists of “best places to work” in part due to their lavish perks—who wouldn’t want to be able to go to an on-site doctor, get a haircut in the break room and then play pool for a few minutes before sidling back up to their ergonomically designed desk?

But while Google might be the example that other companies try to emulate, smaller businesses should tread carefully. Barry Maher, now a motivational speaker and author, gave an example from the days when he worked for a misguided boss.

His previous employer had “a Richard Nixon-like inability to relate to ‘the little people,’” he says. Unlike the higher-ups at Google, who tend to provide employees with perks that they enjoy, this boss had a knack for choosing benefits that made her employees miserable, despite their intended effects.

“She had Muzak pumped in, and everyone hated the music she selected,” says Maher. “She created dissension by scattering candy dishes around an office where most of the employees were trying to diet.”


As Maher notes, while these were minor actions on the part of his boss at the time, “she seriously damaged morale, and vastly increased cynicism about the company and its leadership. That led to decreased productivity, and certainly contributed to an increase in turnover.”

This is an example of good intentions gone awry. If you’re going to provide perks for your employees, don’t just take a top-down approach—ensure that you know what your employees actually want first. If you don’t, you may end up driving them away with your attempts to improve their lives.

And this could cost your company quite a bit of money, as well. A recent study found that the typical cost of turnover for almost any position was 21 percent of the leaving employee’s annual salary. In other words, it costs an average of about $10,000 to replace an employee earning $50,000 annually.

Team-Building Without Considering Team Demographics

While corporate team-building activities can, at times, be beneficial for building trust and encouraging communication between colleagues, employers should be careful to consider which activities would best create a feeling of camaraderie in the office. If they don’t, team-building exercises could very well have the opposite effect.

Take Jack Healey’s story as a warning. Healey, now a partner at Genesis Management, LLC—a company that provides improvement strategies, focused on the supply chain activities of organizations—tells of his past days as the CFO of a public company.

On a company outing, the company’s young CEO decided to have a softball game with the senior management, who, according to Healey, “were in their 50s and out of shape.” Although many of the employees asked the young CEO to abandon the game, he was adamant.

As a result, Healey says, “Out of 16 executives, four were injured—and the CEO never acknowledged the error of his ways, but his management team never forgot.”

So, if you’re in charge of team-building initiatives, keep your team in mind and ensure that activities are rallying them around the right goal. Otherwise, instead of helping create a team that is engaged and excited about your company’s mission, you may instead create a team that is unified by a common enemy: you.

Offering Perks Immediately Upon Hiring

Another mistake employers often make: offering perks too soon. For example, Harshajyoti Das, founder of, an SEO and marketing company, shared the story of how an employee took advantage of his willingness to offer job-related perks early on in this employee’s tenure.

“[The employee] often used to take work home from the office. So, I paid his home Internet rent in advance for the next 12 months,” Das explains. “Within a month or so, he started asking for more free perks. It came to a point where he tricked me into almost buying him a new laptop.”

While this might seem less an issue of employee engagement and more an issue of dishonesty, Das says he has learned from the experience that offering perks too soon can actually result in higher levels of disengagement.

“Whenever I provide incentives to my other employees, I get a feeling that they lose interest in work if they are not paid incentives regularly,” he says.

Das’s solution: to wait. As he says, “I have stopped paying perks to employees until they work with me for at least 3 years.”

Larger corporations and established family businesses have learned the element of time is important when awarding benefits, such as paid time off. Many companies increase the number of holidays its employees receive the longer they’re with the company—a tactic which encourages employees to stick around, while also introducing an element of fairness.

By waiting to offer perks, companies are able to encourage employees to stay longer in order to earn those rewards. This can help decrease turnover and save your company the costs of replacing lost employees.

Organizing Inconsistent Engagement Programs

Finally, if you do decide to offer perks to your employees or implement an incentive or rewards program, be consistent.

Julia Gometz, the founder of The Brandful Workforce, notes that she has seen many companies try to boost employee morale through competitions and challenges. However, in order for these types of programs to be effective, they need to be more than a “one-off.”

“The best way to engage is through consistent action, not a ‘program of the month,’ as some employees call them,” Gometz says.

For instance, whether you hold a monthly “Fancy Friday,” where your employees dress up in teams to compete for a prize (as we do here at Software Advice), or you have a monthly happy hour for the marketing department—make sure those events really do happen monthly. Otherwise, no one will dress fancy, or the happy hour may be poorly attended.

fancy-friday Software Advice’s “Fancy Friday”

As you can see, while some companies may attempt to engage their employees by offering perks and benefits, these programs can easily backfire if not executed properly. If your company is to avoid the fate of those included in this article, learn from their mistakes.

Ask your employees what benefits they’d prefer, and listen to their preferences. Once you’ve determined what would work best for your staff, make sure that they earn these rewards as a result of their hard work. And, once you’ve got those elements sorted out, be consistent with your engagement programs. This will help ensure that your employees become more engaged, not less—and will keep your company productive and profitable.

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About the Author

Erin Osterhaus joined Software Advice in 2012 after earning an M.A. in German and European Studies from Georgetown University. She focuses on the HR market, offering advice to industry professionals on the best recruiting, talent management, and leadership techniques.

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