Motivating Entry-Level Employees When You Can’t Give Them A New BMW

Motivating entry-level employees to perform at their highest capabilities is easy. Simply offer lucrative stock options, three-day work weeks and generous salaries. Oprah Winfrey actually gives employees new cars and trips around the world. On the other hand, if you are like most properties, it takes creativity to motivate employees when your budget is tight.

Motivated employees rely on their own resources to get the job done. They have an inner drive that causes them to provide outstanding customer service. Unmotivated employees simply want to get by doing the minimum amount of work possible. Experts agree you can’t force someone to be motivated. Supervisors can, however, provide a workplace environment that encourages employees to make decisions, deal positively with co-workers and receive recognition for hard work. A key factor is knowing that “entry-level” is not the same as “unimportant”. Your entry level gift shop employee or wait staff is very important in projecting a professional image to your guests.

In a January 1998 Roper Poll, it was found 9 out of 10 employees will work harder for you if you show an interest in their growth outside of work. This statistic opens up a wealth of ways to motivate employees. One hotel had a bulletin board with the caption “Greatest Pets In The World”. It was constantly covered with pictures of adorable puppies and all types of pets owned by the staff. Here are some other ways for you to show entry level employees you care about them as people.

  • Provide a lending library of books on a variety of topics. Include children’s books for parents to borrow and read to their children.

  • Discover your employee’s interests. If an employee loves gardening, give them a small plant in appreciation for their hard work. (I don’t drink coffee, yet people are always giving me coupons for specialty coffee shops.) People appreciate knowing you gave them a gift geared towards their interest or hobby.

  • Generation X employees especially like social events. Plan pizza parties or group activities in acknowledgment of their work.

  • Never underestimate the power of meaningful conversation. Asking an employee, “How did your daughter do at her gymnastic competition?” shows you care about more than the employee’s ability to change linen.

  • Some properties offer brown bag seminars on non-work related topics. Contact free local speakers to give presentations on selecting a summer camp or how to apply for college scholarships.

  • Acknowledge birthdays. One resort honors birthdays by drawing a large card on the white board in the staff lounge with, “Happy Birthday Jeanette!” at the top. Throughout the day, other employees sign their names, write birthday greetings or draw comical pictures on the giant card. The completed “card” is one you’ll never find at Hallmark, but you will make the birthday person feel special.

These types of activities help employees feel management cares about them as individuals, not simply employees.

The University of Kansas psychology department studied other ways to motivate employees. Their results showed recognition was a strong factor in developing employees with high work standards. Again, giving recognition doesn’t take a huge budget. One supervisor gives “psychological paychecks”. When employees receive their paychecks, he attaches a Post-it ™ note on the envelope with a specific positive statement such as, “Helen, Thank you for coming in early last week during 4th of July Weekend. I appreciate your help in taking reservations during such a busy time.” Employees take pride in knowing their extra efforts are acknowledged. If a guest writes a positive letter about an employee, enlarge it and post it where other employees can see it. Begin staff meetings with public praise for an employee’s efforts or contributions to the department. Wouldn’t you enjoy being in a meeting that starts with, “Last week, Jennifer came in as a substitute on incredibly short notice. I’d like to thank her by giving her this gift…a submarine sandwich!”

Do you have Generation X employees working for you? It’s easy to look at this age group and say, “Oh, they don’t know anything about hard work.” Try understanding entry level jobs from a Generation X perspective. Most of these young people grew up as latch key children. They came home from school and had to take care of themselves. Two career parents, feeling guilty about working so much, were quick to compensate by buying their children the latest clothes and technology. Generation X employees didn’t walk barefoot to school through 3 miles of snow! When they come to work, they often expect to start at management level. (Don’t be surprised to hear them say, “What…. I don’t get a corner office?”) Help Generation X employees see the possibility of advancement. If possible, let them sit in on an occasional staff meeting with mid-level managers. They’ll be motivated to see a corner office is possible with some time and work experience. This age group likes lots of feedback. See if you can “touch-base” frequently to let them know how they are doing as employees.

In a survey for American Express, pollsters asked employees, “What do you want most from your employer?” The results? 46% of employees said they wanted personal feedback and 32% stated financial rewards would motivate them. Personal feedback involves communication on a regular basis. Sound simple? Here’s a startling statistic: In a study of 22,000 shift workers, almost 70% said there’s little communication between them and management. Communication can be walking the halls as housekeeping cleans rooms and asking, “How’s it going?” David Brian Catalon, of the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland writes weekly thank you notes to employees that guests have acknowledged. Be specific in what you want you want staff to do. Stating, “Be friendly to guests” is too vague. Can employees smile at guests, or do they need to give a verbal comment? Communicating your expectations helps employees know what is expected of them. This in turn, means employees feel comfortable on the job. They don’t have to wonder if they are performing up to your standards, because you’ve communicated clearly.

One of the easiest ways to discover what motivates your employees is to simply ask them. The results might surprise you! Ask employees to fill out a “Motivation Rating Form”. It could look something like this: (Add any items appropriate to your workplace.)


Please rank the following items. # 1 would be what motivates you the most, etc

___having flexible hours

___chances to get together like picnics or potlucks

____periodic raises

___use of a company car full time

___able to wear sweat pants to work

___10 hour days, four days a week

___milk and cookie break every afternoon

___more promotion opportunities

___free lunches

___getting appreciated by upper management

___generous retirement plan

___encouraged to get more training

___get to bring my dog to work

___getting more responsibility

___knowing more about what is going on at work

___able to occasionally use work time to volunteer at an outside organization

___working from home 1-2 days a week

___more vacation time

___able to set my own goals

___being on a team

___not being on a team

___having my own business cards

___going to training

___None of the above. Here’s what would motivate me the most:________________________________________


After compiling the results, see what you can do to put some of those motivating factors to use.

Working in the hospitality industry often involves long hours with minimum pay for entry-level employees. The following are additional general ideas for motivating employees:

  • Recognition in front of peers. One property offered “standing ovations” to employees demonstrating outstanding customer service.

  • Ask for employee feedback…and acknowledge their input. The Towers Perrin survey polled 250, 000 employees. Only 48% said, “My boss listens to my opinions.”

  • Have FUN at work. (See sidebar for ideas)

  • Reward positive actions. Let employees know when they are using correct, guest-friendly behavior and skills.

  • Keep people informed. As much as possible, let employees know what is going on. Rumors and uncertainty do little to motivate employees.

  • Work on a project together. Can employees compile a cookbook or help paint the gym in an inner city childcare center?

  • Offer discount (or free!) tickets for movies, bowling, pizza.

  • Reward employees who recommend new employees.

  • Empower them to make decisions within specific guidelines.

  • Try to keep their job interesting. Can employees switch jobs with another employee occasionally?

  • Give a sincere, specific “thank you”. “Saying “Thanks Jason, for your hard work building the puppet stage for the children’s program” is more effective than, “Good Job Jason!”

  • Send balloons or flowers to an employee’s home if he/she does something outstanding.

  • Wash their car! One general manager selected an “Employee of the Week” for the 12 weeks of summer. The winning employee received coupons for pizza, a certificate and the joy of watching the GM wash his/her car…in front of other hotel guests!

  • Rotate staff to run portions of staff meetings. This gives them additional responsibility and a chance to develop leadership qualities.

  • Select employees to help interview other entry-level employees. They’ll learn valuable job interviewing skills.

  • Ask employees this simple question: What would help you do a better job? Follow up on as many suggestions as possible.

Alice Issen, a professor at Cornell University, researched ways to help people work together and be creative in problem solving. Her solution? Candy. She states, “Giving someone a small gift of candy can significantly raise their creative problem solving skills.”

So the next time you want to encourage and motivate employees…pass out the chocolate!

Oprah Winfrey has the budget to motivate her employees with exotic gifts and luxury vacations. Most supervisors and managers need to rely on creativity and a few pieces of chocolate. The point is the same…letting entry-level employees know you appreciate their efforts and hard work results in highly motivated employees.


Silvana Clark is a professional speaker, travel writer and author of 10 books. (Don’t tell anyone that she frequently works as a “mystery guest” at various hotels and resorts.) She gives highly interactive keynotes and workshops on increasing staff motivation and helping hotels and resorts provide quality family-friendly programs.



Bringing Fun To Work

Ken Blanchard, author of The One Minute Manager, states, “Humor and laughter in organizations can increase the amount of feedback you get, the honesty, and their capacity for people to tell you good things. It is through humor you open the lines of communication.” So try these simple ideas to bring a little fun to work.

  • Set up a humor bulletin board for people to contribute cartoons, funny postcards or jokes. Keep it updated and ask different departments to contribute for certain time periods.

  • Begin staff meetings with a non-threatening ice breaker.

  • Celebrate some untraditional holidays. Did you know National Trivia Day is January 4th? How about celebrating International Left Handers Day on August 13 or National Better Breakfast month in September? For a listing of 320 crazy holidays, (along with suggested activities) try Every Day A Holiday written by yours truly, Silvana Clark.

  • Announce spontaneous contests such as “Whichever employee had pancakes for breakfast, come to the front desk and pick up a prize.” Or place a jar full of peanuts in the staff room. Have staff guess how many peanuts the jar contains. Closest guess wins…you guessed it… The jar of peanuts! For a great source of inexpensive trinkets and holiday decorations, try Sally Distributors, 800-243-9232

For additional books on employee motivation, try:

10 Minute Guide to Motivating People, by Marshall Cook

Ultimate Rewards: What Rally Motivates People to Achieve, by Steven Kerr

1001 Ways To Reward Employees, by Bob Nelson


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