Fletch, present and accounted for! Another month has flown by and I am happy to be back here at the Leadership Toolbox sharing another potential tool for all leaders out there! Last month we looked at the Iron Triangle and how strategic decision making, or lack thereof, can affect a project team. This article was also a discussion topic on Drilling In-Site. This month I would like to look at what I have begun calling the “free company shirt” approach to new hires.

In my travels, I have spoken to many employers frustrated with their organization’s level of turnover in new employees. This frustration often leads to a perspective that new hires, particularly younger people, lack the work ethic and tenacity to join our industry. This discussion, in many ways, mirrors the discussion my recent column about getting the most from teams using adaptive leadership. But the real question here is, how do I promote a welcoming environment and retain new employees?

This topic grows out of my own reflections on the differences between places I enjoyed working and those I did not. One thing I found noteworthy? The places I enjoyed offered me a free company shirt. This may seem like an insignificant gesture, but it makes a difference in the mind of the new recruit. First, I have never known anyone who did not enjoy receiving something free. Second, imagine a company that does the opposite and makes new employees pay for shirts featuring the logo of the company. What does it say to a new employee when the company says, “Welcome. We are glad you’re here. It is important you present yourself professionally and represent our company well, and you can do that by purchasing gear that features our logo on it”? I have experienced this, I can say it presents a poor first impression.

To me it says that the company does not feel it is worth it to invest funds in making a new hire feel welcome. It tacitly acknowledges that the new hire could leave and, thus, the money spent on a few polo shirts is better spent elsewhere. Given an economy where our industry feels constant pressure to produce more with less, some companies seek to ensure every penny goes to the most impactful place. Free shirts don’t generate revenue, so why invest there? However, we often talk about forming good culture within our workplaces — most notably regarding safety. Forming or changing any part of workplace culture begins with small steps or gestures, like a logo shirt, not grand endeavors.

During a recent discussion among friends, the topic of unions came up. I do not take one side or the other when it comes to the value of unions, but I want to share a thought that fits with this discussion. One person made the argument that poor treatment of workers eventually leads to their organizing and advocating for better treatment together. That entire discussion, I thought, becomes unnecessary if employers established a caring culture for the people that work for them in the first place.

I often found, in the companies that did not offer me a free shirt, more concern with achieving outcomes than caring for their people. This led to a deteriorating work environment in some cases and derailed the mission. I noticed others around me striving less. They wondered how hard they should work for a company that did not care about them. On the other hand, companies that offered me a free shirt often went out of their way to take care of their employees. These companies gave time off at the conclusion of a job well done, often made small gestures for holidays to keep morale up, and fostered a stronger and more cohesive team environment.

What if, instead of squeezing every bit of life out of our teams to get that last dollar, we made a small gesture to change the culture?

This discussion does not come without a thought for the perspective of company executives. We are all in the business of making money. The question is, at what cost? What are we willing to sacrifice to get just one more dollar in the revenue column? Is that dollar so important that we forego building a positive relationship with each hire from day one? Is that dollar so important that we develop a habit of labeling a new hire that leaves as “not up to snuff” for our industry, when we could really be the problem?

What if, instead of squeezing every bit of life out of our teams to get that last dollar, we made a small gesture to change the culture? What if we took a dollar and used it to make new hires feel welcome or even to make current employees feel appreciated and cared for? It sometimes feels as if Ebenezer Scrooge has taken a place among our ranks with his miserly persona pre-ghostly visits. I am not saying a free shirt is the answer to retaining new hires or changing workplace culture, but it could provide a spark for an industry in need of quality employees. Roll out a different welcome wagon than the one currently used. This year, include a few shirts in your budget — or coffee mugs or water bottles. Whatever it is, perhaps a simple gesture to new and current employees could be the tool that reignites passion, hard work and morale in your company. Until next time, Fletch over and out.