One-to-one management can be great for employee satisfaction and retention, as Leigh Buchanan points out in the October 2001 Inc magazine piece "Managing One-to-One". But it's not always an easy strategy to implement. In fact, there are several pitfalls that you should make sure to look out for if you're considering applying a similar strategy at your company. Here are a few to keep in mind.
Watch out for discriminatory practices. Focusing on individuals' personal needs and motivations, or on their relationship with your company, can easily be misconstrued as discrimination. It's possible that some of the benefits offered may not be universal at all, but rather based upon age, education, or background. For example, is it appropriate to sponsor an MBA for a 30 year old, but not offer the same benefit to a potential retiree? Keep in mind what is driving the decision to satisfy a particular employee: is it demographics or the specific situation? Cover your bases by making sure that any benefit offered to one employee is also available to all other employees, should they request it.
Privacy issues. In your attempt to provide unique, personal, and needed benefits to your employees, make sure you don't overstep any privacy boundaries in the process. If your company is willing to sponsor legal services for an individual, then the employee may need to disclose information that is really of no business to the company. You may not be thinking about it now, but future claims of discriminatory promotional or hiring decisions could be made based upon such disclosures. "He couldn't handle his divorce and we had to get him counseling, so how can he be expected to handle an executive position?" is just one example. Any time that your company is learning details about--or getting involved in--an employee's life beyond work, you need to be extra careful about privacy issues.
Keep morale in mind. Consider what happens morale-wise if a request is denied--or worse, retracted. In some situations, a motivational tool can actually become de-motivating if it's handled inappropriately. For example, if you need to cut back on expenses during the company picnic because tough times have hit, then will you decide that it's acceptable to eliminate the vegan food that you approved a year ago? The reasoning may be sound--it's an expensive benefit that affects a very small number of employees--but the negative effect on morale may be extremely widespread. It naturally raises the question, "What's the next thing to be cut?" Morale can also be hit hard by the outright denial of certain requests--particularly if it's not clear to employees why specific requests were approved while others were not. It's important to make sure you've considered all of these possible situations, and have communicated your stance and policy regarding such concerns to your employees ahead of time.
Focus on the people, not the benefits. The real reason that most people stay at a particular organization is satisfaction. The primary drivers of such satisfaction are the acquisition of new skills, the continuity between an individual's values and those of the company, recognition of achievement, and autonomy when doing the job. Additional benefits may be a perk, but it's essential to focus your one-to-one management strategy on your people and their needs, rather than on the materialistic benefits and perks you may be offering.
An interesting alternative that some companies have turned to is a work-life reimbursement account. Under this type of program, every employee receives a monthly contribution from the company. That amount is placed in an account, and when employees submit receipts for approved expenses, they are reimbursed out of the account by a third-party organization. The list of approved expenses can include anything from movie tickets, health club fees, and dog grooming, to greens fees, gardeners, car washes, and just about any other personal expense that an employee might incur. Anonymity is retained since a third party does the reimbursement and discrimination is avoided since there is a list of approved expenses in which everyone can participate at-will. This kind of program may help you circumvent some of the pitfalls of one-to-one management.