Flash over substance

May 19, 2024

Jeremy Clarke


Focus your firm’s retention strategy on offering meaningful benefits that are in alignment with core human needs.

Here’s a quote to help provoke some mental stimulation: “People want to want more than they want to have, and so the shallow satisfaction of having is always replaced by more wanting.”

That provocative sentiment captures a fundamental principle of human behavior at work in all of us known as the “hedonic treadmill,” which states that people continually chase temporary happiness by seeking new things, but once those shallow things are obtained, the satisfaction they provide fades as we adapt to having them – and so we begin seeking and wanting the next thing. That’s because core human needs go much, much deeper than surface-level (dare I say, gimmicky) desires or experiences. Your core needs and my core needs are established around security, well-being, and purpose (among others) and the fulfillment of these things leads to a sense of deep intrinsic satisfaction that is far more enduring than the fleeting happiness that gimmicky “things” offer.

Now, I realize you aren’t reading today’s issue of The Zweig Letter with the intent of getting a psychology lesson (nor am I remotely qualified to offer one), so let’s get to work applying this principle to the issue of employee retention. As firms engaged in a seemingly unceasing struggle to attract and keep good talent, I don’t mind saying that I think we’ve misguidedly elected to feed this monster. Hell, we’ve not only turned on the hedonic treadmill, we’re filling it with gas! We pander to it, we indulge it. We think getting and keeping top talent means giving people shallow, transient things they want rather than improving our offering of the things they actually need.

Here are a few examples of the not-so-uncommon half-baked perks I’m talking about: unlimited snacks and soda, pet-friendly offices, pet insurance, nap pods (seriously?), hammocks, gaming consoles, themed office days, weekly catered lunches, happy hours, smoothie bars, adventure bonuses, onsite yoga classes, RV rental discounts (not kidding), etc. Any of those ring a bell? Who needs a better 401(k) benefit or more affordable healthcare premiums when you can have all the free kale smoothies you want (cue eye roll)? You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Let me offer some hard data to chew on. In a 2023 employee benefits survey released by the Society for Human Resources Management (a national and regarded think-tank on HR structures, trends, strategies, etc.), the top five benefits sought by candidates and employees are as follows:

  1. Healthcare related (89 percent)
  2. Retirement related (81 percent)
  3. Work/life balance, PTO, and leave (80 percent)
  4. Professional development (68 percent)
  5. Catastrophic benefits, i.e., life/disability (67 percent)

    Did you notice the trend in those statistics? Candidates and employees want three core fundamental human needs met. They want:

    • Security. In other words, they want to feel assured. They want a sense of financial and physical safety in life through good healthcare, good retirement, and good insurance.
    • Purpose. In other words, they want a meaningful and positive trajectory for their career. They want to feel like they can advance and excel at their firm.
    • Wellness. In other words, they want better quality of life outcomes through good work/life balance so that instead of just doing and surviving they feel like they’re thriving.

    As employers, our intentions may be good; but at the end of the day, candidates and employees want greater investment into their security and wellness rather than having catered salads or “bring your pet to work” days. In fact, gimmicky, half-baked perks like these actually increase turnover by attracting the professionals who are seeking transient shallow “perks” over a legitimate long-term career opportunity. If you take one thing away from this article let it be this: Long runway benefits are a premium among long runway employees. Conversely, short runway perks are a premium among short runway employees

    The downside to the current trend of offering gimmicky, trendy benefits to employees is that, more often than not, the suggestion of it clouds what is truly worthy of human dignity and therefore truly meaningful (and for this reason they’re usually perceived as insincere anyway!). Pet insurance and kale smoothies might make for catchy hooks – they might even work for a time – but the fact is that if priority isn’t given to core issues such as security, wellness, and purpose, then all your imaginative short-term tactics will fail to be a basis for producing long-term commitment.

    Let me encourage you to get off the vicious treadmill and focus your firm’s strategy on offering meaningful and relevant benefits that are in alignment with core human needs. Benefits that actually bring dignity to your employees, create deep loyalty and effectively retain talent. It has been proven over and over to me that the greatest threat to loyalty is a frivolous and shallow sense of entitlement – and the surest way to enlarge one’s frivolous and shallow sense of entitlement is to appease it. 

    Jeremy Clarke is the director of executive search and recruiting at Zweig Group and the CEO of Emissary Recruiting Solutions. Contact him at jclarke@zweiggroup.com.

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    About Zweig Group

    Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.