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No room for raises this year? You can still reward high performers

Here are the best ways to keep good employees engaged and motivated if you don’t have the budget to reward them right now.

No room for raises this year? You can still reward high performers
[Photo: Morvanic Lee/Unsplash]

It’s performance review time at your company and you know that your employees aren’t exactly looking forward to it. But, as a manager, your stomach is in knots about the entire process as well.

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Why? You want to reward the high-performing employees on your team that you know deserve to be recognized with a pay raise or a boost up the ladder. There’s only one problem: You don’t have the budget or resources to make that happen right now.

You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’re eager to show those achievers that their contributions are valued. But, when money talks, you’re struggling to figure out how you can keep them engaged and motivated.

It’s stressful, but you don’t need to start huffing and puffing into a paper bag quite yet. I connected with three different managers and experts to get the lowdown on how you can show your employees that you appreciate them–even if you can’t offer a raise or promotion.


Related: There are 4 types of motivation–here’s what each does to your brain


Get candid with your direct reports

Not being able to give an employee what they want can inspire feelings of guilt and shame. However, it’s important that you maintain a certain level of transparency with the people who work for you.

“I try very hard to be honest with my direct reports,” explains Lauren McCullough, senior director of marketing here at The Muse, “There are often larger factors that contribute to not being able to offer a raise or a promotion, and these are sometimes things that my employees may not be aware of. I try to share and explain the broader context–without revealing anything confidential.”

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Let’s face it–the fact that you’re not using those standard methods to recognize your team’s high-achievers isn’t going to slip by unnoticed. It’s far better to address that with them head on, so you don’t leave them feeling cheated or even doubtful of their own performance.

Related: How These 4 Different Personality Types Find Motivation


Ask questions

Sure, a raise or a move up the ranks probably tops the list of desires for your direct reports. But, now is a good opportunity to find out of there’s something else they’ve been wanting that you can realistically offer.

“Oftentimes, high-performers love to be challenged. One of the best things a manager can do is work with the employee to understand what else they want to learn and how they want to grow. Are there stretch assignments or cross-functional projects they can take on?” explains Julie Li, senior director of people operations at Namely.

Do they want to spearhead a project? Dip their toes into another department? Is there a certain skill they’ve been aiming to bolster? Supporting those efforts goes a long way in making employees feel valued.

Even outside of learning and development, there are other creative solutions you could try. For example, if one of your direct reports is craving more flexibility and greater work-life balance, see if you could offer a few more vacation days or even a regularly scheduled work-from-home day.

Recognize them in a way that resonates

Your attempts to match rewards with employees’ desires won’t go unappreciated, but you also need to pay close attention to how people on your team prefer to be recognized.

“When employees ask for promotions or raises, it usually means that they just want to be recognized for the great work that they’re doing. Most employees jump to promotions or raises because these are the first things that come to mind as a traditional reward system,” says Li.

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However, making recognition a frequent and constant pillar of your team’s culture can often hold just as much (if not more) power than a sporadic pay bump–particularly if you offer recognition in a way that’s tailored to each employee.

“It’s critical to understand how each person on your team likes to be recognized or appreciated. While many enjoy being publicly recognized in front of others or a large group, you may be surprised to find out that many do not,” explains Arik Orbach, Muse career coach and HR professional.

Orbach admits that it can feel uncomfortable to directly ask an employee how they prefer to be applauded. Fortunately, you can learn a lot by simply observing how they react to different forms of praise.

Related: Are you a leader or a manager? Here’s the difference


Advocate for your employees

“If employees are truly deserving of a promotion or raise, fight for them,” Orbach insists. You might be able to find a way to give them even a small increase that can keep that employee satisfied for the time being.

If that’s not the case? You can advocate for your direct reports in a different way: by using this as a chance to understand their long-term career goals and collaborate on a plan for achieving them.

“I’ve also used these conversations as an opportunity for me and my direct report to recommit to creating a personal development plan with documented goals and milestones to help us better articulate the case for a raise and a promotion in the future,” explains McCullough, “It’s important that my team knows that I have their back, and that I’m here to help them achieve their goals.”
Not being able to give an employee a raise or promotion that they deserve is disheartening–for both your direct report and you as their manager.

Don’t get discouraged, and instead look at this as an opportunity to reward and recognize your team members in other meaningful ways.

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“Raises and promotions feel fantastic when you earn them, although those feelings are often short-lived,” concludes Orbach, “We may bask in those accomplishments, but then that sinking feeling of having to worry about how to top those results or take on newer, more daunting responsibilities sets in. I have found in my experience that oftentimes the best recognition methods or tools are actually the most affordable ones!”


This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission. 

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