Treat the cause of disengaged employees, not the symptom

In major league baseball, it’s not uncommon to see a team, saddled with a regretful contract, trade an established player for next to nothing, trying to get dead money off its books and onto someone else’s. Addition through subtraction, as it were. 

In recent years, it’s not just baseball doing something like that. 

This past February, when Amazon announced a series of layoffs, The Atlantic used the occasion to revisit the company’s policy, first announced in 2014, to offer up to $5,000 to unhappy, disengaged warehouse and customer service employees to…get out. Don’t really want to be here anymore? Suit yourself, says Amazon. Here’s a nice chunk of change to speed your departure, and no need to darken our door again. 

This policy was instituted several years after Zappos’ (now owned by Amazon) widely publicized similar offer for new hires. A later arrangement, in which Zappos employees had to decide whether to stay on under a new management system, saw a hefty 18 percent of the workforce take the money and run. 

Overall, for companies employing this unorthodox method of enhancing employee engagement, the idea seems to be regarded as a counterintuitive but quite shrewd maneuver (such as here, here and here). At least on the face of it, there do seem to be plausibly good effects: 

  • Corrects misguided hires sooner, rather than later 
  • Limits the cancerous effects of dissatisfied, unproductive morale-killers  
  • Recommits employees who stay, since they’ll feel an obligation to double down after passing on the money 
  • Demonstrates the company is serious about maintaining its culture (although in Amazon’s notorious case, it’s not clear why anyone would want to)

Well…not sure about all that. 

Seems to us like this is some special pleading, telling only one side of the story. Seems that such a policy—even if comparatively few employees ever take them up on it—raises more questions than it answers. For starters: 

  • Doesn’t this qualify as “too clever by half”? 
  • Whose fault is it the employees are unhappy or disengaged? 
  • Given the painful costs of turnover, why go out of your way to add to them? 
  • Are you sure only truly disengaged employees will leave? 
  • Why pay them to do what they’ll inevitably do for free anyway? 
  • Wouldn’t this money be better spent giving employees reasons to stay? 

And maybe the most reflexive one: You can’t think of any better options than this? (Bribing might be one; you decide.)

Say it’s time to paint the exterior of your two-story house, which happens to feature more than its share of windows. Unless you’re a professional painter, coating hundreds of those little sashes will be tough, intricate work, and who has time for all that? What the heck: Maybe just slap the paint right on there, and then come back tomorrow with a razor blade and easily scrape it off the glass. 

When you think about it, that’s actually a pretty clever idea. If you don’t know how to paint windows. 

So, call us old-fashioned, but wouldn’t it be wiser to work towards having fewer disengaged employees in the first place? To create a workplace where the thought of paying people to leave would never occur to anyone? To at least attempt re-engaging those who have lost the spark? 

As a company committed to making the world a better place to work, naturally we have a few ideas on that. Our first recommendation would be making a stronger point of hiring engaged, committed employees to begin with, and then surrounding them with an environment they’ll never want to leave.

Paying people to self-select will bring articles in the business press about your progressive ideas, but it may say more about your culture than you really intend. If you were a restauranteur confronted with a patron not all that excited about their meal, would you offer them $100 to go away and never come back?  

Of course not. Are your employees not at least as important to you as your customers?