Can't Buy You Love

by Ray Knight and Rob Sanders

We all want to make more money than we do; it’s part of human nature to desire more of the wherewithal that lets us enjoy security and the things we like.  Yet it takes more than money and benefits to hold on to good employees.  Those are important motivators, but not necessarily the sole or even primary reason employees stay or leave.  A strong corporate culture is by far the most powerful magnet that holds employees firmly in place. 

There will always be those who are willing to jump ship for a few dollars more (benefits, by themselves, are seldom a strong enough lure for people to change jobs).  The less attractive your cultural environment, the higher the proportion of your employees who are vulnerable.

“Low pay” is an issue that surfaces fairly frequently in our studies of gaming cultures.  Yet comparative analysis of pay scales in a given market most often shows that the employees are making about the same or sometimes even better than their counterparts down the street.  Concerns about pay often mask hidden underlying emotions and attitudes. 

To understand the real meaning of employee preoccupations with compensation, it’s necessary to peel off the surface layers and look underneath.  When employees complain about low pay or defect to another company for more pay, what they’re most likely saying is, “The pay I get for this job isn’t worth what I have to put up with.”  A variant on this theme is, “The pay I get is not worth the effort I put into the job.”
 Assuming that compensation is in fact generally competitive, each of these perspectives are most likely to be commentaries on the cultural environment and job satisfaction.  The first one expresses frustration with working conditions and how employees are treated.  The latter reveals disappointment at the lack of reward and recognition for doing a good job.  For many people, these subjective, emotional responses to the stimulus of the workplace environment are difficult to articulate.  So, instead, employees say the pay is lousy.
Similarly, they may say they’re moving to a new company because the pay is great and the benefits are terrific.  What they’re more likely saying is, “It’s a chance to get away from this crummy place and start fresh” – hope springs eternal, the grass is greener, starting with a clean slate, etc.

These sentiments are typically expressed with stronger conviction at the lower stratas of the organization, among line-level employees, than in the upper echelons.  This layer of the organization gets the least respect and, usually, the least personal attention.  That they are also the lowest paid is only relative within the company; in another gaming organization they would also be the lowest paid.

The Disney organization has shown clearly how a strong culture that delivers powerful job satisfaction puts pay in a less commanding position as an employee motivator.  Disney World doesn’t pay exorbitant salaries to its ride operators and ticket-takers and popcorn sellers.  Yet few would be willing to defect to other area theme parks for a matter of a few shekels.  There are even people who beg to work at Disney World for free!  The long term investment Disney has made in building and maintaining its unique culture pays continual dividends in withstanding new enticements for its employees to get wanderlust.

Gaming operations are directing a lot of attention to courting their top executives, hoping to keep them from getting happy feet as the rush of new openings in Las Vegas threatens to vacuum them away.  That’s certainly understandable; good talent at the top is essential.  A trickle-down impact is likely to be felt in markets outside Las Vegas, too.  However, casino executives represent only a minuscule fraction of the 30,000 new jobs that must be filled.  Customers don’t have that much contact with executives in casinos.

It’s the line-level employees that represent the company to customers.  At least as much attention, preferably a lot more, should be directed to keeping good rank-and-file employees.  Not with money alone.  Not with benefits alone.

That’s not to say these aren’t important.  However, offering more money is only a temporary salve; the positive effect of a pay increase lasts only as long as it takes for employee spending to match and inevitably exceed it.  Better benefits are soon enough taken for granted and considered by employees as a right, not a privilege.

Even in the highly-charged gaming world, there is a roughly inverse relationship between job satisfaction and compensation expectations.  When people enjoy what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with, feel wanted and needed in the group, and believe firmly in what the company stands for, they’re more willing to be content with their compensation and far less likely to bolt out the door chasing the first passing temptation.

(This article appeared in the June 1999 issue.)