4 Ways to Reward Employees When Cash Is Tight

Salary is, without a doubt, a key factor in attracting, gratifying, and retaining employees. But as important as financial compensation is, it is not the sole source of employee satisfaction and fulfillment. For some, it’s not even the main source. This is good news for businesses who need to tighten their purse strings.

While financial rewards provide external encouragement, according to Carl Greenberg, Ph.D., founder of Pragmatic HR, non-monetary rewards that show employees they are appreciated, valued members of your organization help build their self-esteem. This enhances intrinsic motivation, which has been scientifically proven to have a positive impact; data from McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index found employees who are intrinsically motivated to be 32 percent more committed to their job, have 46 percent higher job satisfaction, and perform 16 percent better than other employees.

Here are some suggestions for how to reward employees in ways that are meaningful but won’t break the bank.

Feedback and Engagement

I think it’s fair to say that most people want to feel seen and heard, and it’s as true in the workplace as it as at home.

Consider hosting a face-to-face or virtual feedback lunch where commendable employees have an opportunity to share and receive feedback on their ideas and concerns. A growing trend in virtual meetings is having a meal delivered to attendees’ homes, a tactic used to both delight individuals and address the collective challenge of finding time to eat during busy workdays.  Back in June, Uber for Business launched Vouchers for Uber Eats, which lets businesses customize meal plans for employees and customers, whether it’s a one-on-one meeting or a 1,000-person virtual event. 

Others options that can demonstrate your confidence and investment in an employee include providing them with one-on-one mentoring, nominating them for an industry award, or inviting all senior team members to share–in a note or video recording–what that individual brings to the organization and present the compilation to the employee.


According to data from career site Comparably, of 2,248 employees from small, midsize, and large public and private U.S. companies surveyed, 39 percent identified being a micromanager as the worst trait a boss can have. Correspondingly, data from global staffing firm Robert Half showed that, of more than 2,800 professionals surveyed from 28 major U.S. cities, nearly half (49 percent) have quit a job due to a bad boss. 

Allowing more flexibility in an employee’s schedule or role is a great way to show them that they are a trusted member of the organization. Whether this means they are deciding what time their workday starts or ends, choosing how often they telecommute, or allocating tasks and pace of work, putting them in the driver’s seat can make a big impact on how they feel about their work. In addition to potentially increasing morale, this move could also improve employee retention.


Researchers from the University of Birmingham studied two years’ worth of data on 20,000 workers to determine the effects of autonomy on employee morale and well-being. The results, which were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal, Work and Occupations, found that employees with higher levels of autonomy in their work reported positive effects on their overall well-being and higher levels of job satisfaction.

There are myriad ways to enable employee autonomy: 1) put them in control of more decision-making when it comes to their own responsibilities so they are less beholden to direction from others; 2) encourage and even request the contribution of more ideas; 3) within reason, pull back on intervening without solicitation as an employee works toward accomplishing a goal.

Empowering employees to hold themselves accountable for their own work also frees up those in management and leadership roles, which can result in improved efficiency and savings.

Developmental Opportunities

Fostering a work culture that prioritizes ongoing education and expansion promotes organizational growth, but it also provides opportunities to help valued employees develop skills in areas in which they excel or are interested.

Consider rewarding an employee whose demonstrated progress or shows interest in a particular area by sending them to a conference or seminar related to that skillset. Similarly, you could pay for a membership in a trade association of the employee’s choosing. Or, if you know an employee is interested in transitioning to a different role or department, provide them with pathways to gain exposure and experience that will help them explore that desire.

As is true of so many areas of life and work today, personalization is the key to success. When monetary rewards aren’t in the cards, a little legwork to find out what an employee values–and giving it to them–goes a long way in showing them what they’re worth.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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