Good Culture Is In, Inflated Salaries Are Out

A new study reveals that a caring office culture trumps a higher salary for many employees.
January 12, 2012

I see it every day.  Employees at all levels—especially women—are stepping away from positions that will pay them the highest salary, and moving into ones that provide them a better quality of life.

A friend of mine, Lucy, was a talented fifth-year associate at a Top 5 law firm in Manhattan.  She made so much money that her husband didn’t have to work, ever. But just as her partner was getting ready to buy a new set of golf clubs, Lucy quit.  She went to work as internal legal counsel for a company that manufactures environmentally-friendly home products.  Lucy makes $100k less in this new position, but her office is sunny and collaborative and her colleagues respect her personal time. She loves it.

A caring culture is tops

Lucy’s story is in line with the findings of a recent Monster/Unum study of job seekers, which determined that, over everything else, 87 percent of employees want a company "that truly cares about the well-being of its employees."  By contrast, only 66 percent of respondents rated a high base salary as very important.

Another 2011 Unum survey with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services solicited human resource executives’ opinions on this issue, with similar results. This research found that corporate culture is critical to driving engagement, recruitment and retention of a quality workforce.

A company’s values and focus on employee fulfillment are apparently the most important factors in attracting and engaging quality employees, and being a company that cares about the well-being of its staff was twice as likely to be viewed as very important in attracting and retaining staff as providing a high base salary.

Money doesn’t buy satisfaction

You may be skeptical of these results. After all, with retirement funds still dwindling as a result of an economy that has been in the dumps for several years, why wouldn’t employees want all of the money they could get? Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert provides some clues in his book Stumbling on Happiness, suggesting that money increases happiness only when it lifts people out of objective poverty and into the middle class. Once you’re in the middle class and your basic needs are met, income increases don’t positively impact your level of happiness or quality of life.

This idea has been supported by global surveys that ask people how satisfied they are with their lives on a scale from 1 to 7 (1 being "not at all satisfied with my life" and 7 being "completely satisfied with my life"). Among American multimillionaires, the average happiness score is 5.8. Want to know who else had a score of 5.8? The cattle-herding Masai tribe in Kenya, which has no electricity or running water. Interesting.

It will cost some money

Since readers of this column obviously care about creating and sustaining a great workplace culture, this is good news. It’s even better for those who are small business owners, as while your salaries may be lower, it’s also easier for you to develop the meaningful one-on-one employee relationships that lead to a positive culture.

What everyone should remember, though, is that great culture is about more than having donuts for breakfast and being nice to and supportive of one another. To be really competitive in the culture department, Unum says you have to pony up for things like health, lifestyle and retirement benefits. While this won’t always be 100 percent doable, hopefully research like Unum’s will prompt you to consider culture-boosting perks more seriously than before.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian