- Careers

How to keep employees happy (when you can’t pay them more)

happy faces

A quick search on Amazon for “happiness at work” turns up 10,816 entries. The first page, save for one mp3, is all books about finding happiness at a place of employment. With a growing interest on finding fulfilling work to complement our lives, satisfaction where we spend 40 – or more – hours of our week is of the utmost importance.

Managers and HR professionals need to be let in on a secret: Keeping employees happy isn’t rocket science. It’s actually very simple. During my time as an editor, I had the pleasure of supervising some very talented writers. Let me tell you, keeping creative people happy is not an easy task.

It is, however, doable.

Sometimes the answer is extremely simple: Pay your people what they’re worth.  Money isn’t a cure-all to work place satisfaction, but it goes a long way towards pleasing those driven by the dollar. In my case as an editor of two relatively young (read: broke) upstart online publications, that simply was not an option.

Despite the lack of monetary incentives, turnover was not the order of the day. In retrospect, there were a few ways that we kept people not only happy, but driven to give their best. The lessons learned in my early days will be applied the next time I’m in a supervisory position – and I’m willing to bet some people can apply them today.

Say thank you.

Saying a simple “thank you” costs nothing but means everything. Letting those under your supervision know that you appreciate their work can be the pick me up needed to press on in difficult times.

Be transparent

Whether a nonprofit organization or a giant corporation, morale and productivity tend to go up when people are invested in the organization. One of the best ways to achieve this is through honesty. Share the good news with your employees – and be as forthcoming as possible about the not so good news. The latter may be more important.

I had friends that worked for an organization that was facing layoffs, but avoided telling its employees the truth about what was happening. The will we or won’t we have jobs dance that the majority of workers were forced to do month-to-month killed morale. Further, when the truth came out and many felt lied to, it was a death-blow for productivity.


One thing I saw firsthand during my time with the Clark County School District was the difference in morale when teachers felt like their voices mattered. When you take the time to listen to suggestions and concerns, people feel included. Which brings me to…

Act on what you hear

Listening alone is not always good enough. If listening sessions produce no substantive changes, people will see them for the dishonest ploy they are. There’s only so much listening one can do. Action matters. Implement change when you can, explain why a suggestion can’t be implemented when possible.

People appreciate it.

Be flexible

While a greater deal of flexibility is possible in creative positions, I was able to succeed at keeping writers happy by providing a good balance between necessary assignments and assignments brought to us by writers. Even with the things that had to be done, the writers under my supervision maintained their voice and got a chance to write about issues close to their hearts.


Success also came with creating meaningful work experiences. No, we couldn’t pay writers.  Yes, we could get them into a concert/movie premiere that interested them. Even when we could pay, the money wasn’t great. But that interview with an artist they admired? Priceless.

If you’re a manager, find professional development opportunities; flex time, or whatever else makes your direct reports tick.

Money is great; but the manager who can motivate moves up.


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