Productivity: You Get What You Pay For

Sweating a possible rise in the minimum wage? Research finds that companies that go above and beyond reap many rewards.

It’s an ever-present dilemma: How much of your profits should go into the pockets of your people? Does it really pay off to pay workers more, treat them better and invest in their development? For many, a world in which competitive advantages last for nanoseconds means that the skills people were hired for yesterday may not be relevant to the needs of the business tomorrow. So, some argue, being generous with employees is a luxury they just can’t afford. Well, there is some new, interesting and somewhat counterintuitive evidence that companies can benefit by sharing more of their profits with their employees.

In Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Zeynep Ton’s new book, The Good Jobs Strategy, Ton finds that companies that treat employees well perform better than those that don’t. She cites the success of Southwest Airlines, UPS, Toyota and Zappos, and focuses on a group of retailers (Costco, QuikTrip, Trader Joe’s and Spain’s Mercadona) that have generated lower costs, higher profits and greater customer satisfaction and loyalty than comparable companies, such as Walmart. While that sounds too good to be true, Ton is not alone in coming to this conclusion. My former colleague at Wharton, Marshall Fisher, found that for every dollar of increased wages in a retailer that he studied, more than $10 in revenue was brought in. For more understaffed areas of the stores he studied, the boost from better customer service and more engagement was as high as $28.

One of the ways in which Ton’s thinking has helped companies accomplish the paradoxical outcome of happier, more engaged workers and higher profits is by changing their workforce management systems. It turns out that when you stop thinking about your people as cost centers and units of production and start thinking about them as sources for possible opportunity and customer satisfaction, they can do a lot more for you. Companies such as IKEA have been utilizing Ton’s work to go beyond thinking of people simply as units of production to understanding how best to deploy them strategically. 

As some economists have pointed out, business owners who focus narrowly on direct costs such as wages and benefits may be misreading the total cost of their employee base. For instance, high turnover among poorly paid workers is well-documented and extremely expensive — according to human resources experts, it costs anywhere from 30% to 150% of annual wages to replace an employee. So at 100% turnover (not unusual among low-wage workers), one employee is actually costing you the price of two in a year. It’s also hard to see how poorly engaged or stressed-out workers are going to represent your company well to your customers.  

In my own research on how companies can transition from advantage to advantage smoothly — picking up new opportunities as old ones fade away — the people question is at the heart of their strategies. Of 10 companies that achieved the remarkable result of increasing net income by 5% or more for 10 years in a row, all of them have won awards as exceptional places to work, and despite low turnover have managed to transition their people from advantage to advantage while avoiding dramatic downsizing and wrenching restructuring. Among the principles they seem to endorse are that providing developmental support and hiring for so-called “learnability” provides a source of advantage that can be enduring, even as product and service attributes are quickly copied. Perhaps being generous in a world of transient advantage can offer surprising benefits.

Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, is a globally recognized expert on strategy and the author of three books, including The End of Competitive Advantage: How to Keep Your Strategy Moving as Fast as Your Business (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).

On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 being 'Not Good' and 5 being 'Excellent', how would you rate this article?

Press enter to submit your rating

Rate this Article

Use this form to provide additional feedback based on the rating you provided.

Thanks for Rating

Would you like to provide feedback?

Thanks for your feedback!

Article provided by Inc

© 2015 Inc

The information, views, opinions, and positions expressed by the author(s) and/or presented in the article are those of the author or individual who made the statement and do not necessarily reflect the policies, views, opinions, and positions of Regions. Regions makes no representations as to the accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability, or validity of any information presented.

This information is general in nature and is provided for educational purposes only. Information provided and statements made by employees of Regions should not be relied on or interpreted as accounting, financial planning, investment, legal, or tax advice. Regions encourages you to consult a professional for advice applicable to your specific situation.