HR Mistake Of The Week: Paying Employees In Compliments, Not Cash

Can a manager’s enthusiastic verbal support of an employee backfire? Former corporate HR employee Suzanne Lucas, who writes a column called Evil HR Lady for CBS MoneyWatch, tackled an interesting question recently from an employee who is getting sick and tired of receiving glowing reviews — and no raise.

The letter begins:

My reviews are glowing, my progress non-existent. I feel like I am getting paid in compliments and not in salary and/or title. I have been with this company for two years and have always gone above and beyond. I even faced an angry employee who had just been fired — sent in by the head of HR with little warning (I understand that she was scared) — and calmed him down. This is just one example. My reward so far keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the future. … I have asked for a salary review and only received verbal responses. Praise. Praise. Praise.

The letter-writer says she’s so frustrated she’s considering looking for another job. Lucas’s smart advice is targeted to the employee, not the HR department. In short, either the employee is not as great as her bosses are telling her, she’s good but not ready for a promotion, or she’s so good her manager doesn’t want to lose her through promotion.

But there are plenty of lessons to be learned here from an HR perspective, too. If management and HR promise an employee for years that a raise or a promotion are on the horizon, then it doesn’t help anyone to withhold the promised advancement and not explain why.

Any one of the three possibilities Lucas lists are plausible. But any of them can also be shared frankly with an employee. If the employee is a drag on the company, maybe frank but fair negative feedback will give her the boost she needs to start looking for another job. If she needs to develop certain skills before advancing, getting clear direction about that can get her on track.

And if she’s truly a top employee, she needs a clear answer about why she hasn’t gotten a raise or a promotion, and what she can expect in the future. Otherwise the company will inevitably lose her; as this employee writes, she’s so frustrated she’s looking around for another job even though her preference would be to stay.

In short, positive feedback is great. But simple cheery assurances that everything is going great aren’t enough to keep employees happy forever. Eventually, both management and HR need to be honest. Paying employees in compliments, and compliments only, isn’t a long-term solution.

Photo: igor kisselev /

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