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opinion | Janice Kaplan

Pay is no substitute for ‘thank you’

The origins of Labor Day are slightly hazy, but the US Department of Labor points to one of the likely originators as Peter McGuire, a union leader in the 1880s who wanted to honor workers “who from rude nature . . . carved all the grandeur we behold.”

On Monday we will continue to celebrate the grandeur of work. But isn’t it time to do something about the rudeness? Fair pay is important, but we also need to change to a culture where people are appreciated.

Most of us don’t work in factories or coal mines anymore, but we have transferred our vision of the workplace as a tough, gritty environs to open-plan offices and cubicled-floors. Executives grunt that they don’t have time for politeness or touchy-feely emotions. On TV’s “Mad Men,’’ advertising copywriter Peggy once complained to her boss Don Draper that he never said thank you. “That’s what the money is for,” he snapped.


Executives who think they say thank you with a paycheck are missing the point. In a survey I oversaw for the John Templeton Foundation, 81 percent of Americans said they would work harder if the boss said thank you.

Other studies show people have the greatest creativity and persistence when they are respected and appreciated on the job. Adam Grant, a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, believes that a more giving attitude could transform the business world. “A sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work,” he said.

Most companies rely on material incentives like bonuses or first-class travel to keep people motivated — but those quickly lose their punch. Psychologists say the things we want often lose their luster once we get them. Your raise in pay seems like what you deserve, and the warm cashews in first class don’t taste very special. When you rely on “stuff” to feel satisfied, you have to keep upping the ante because whatever you get becomes the baseline.

But being appreciated never gets old. And expressing gratitude doesn’t just make other people feel good, it can lead to personal advancement. Some 93 percent of people in our survey thought a grateful boss was most likely to be successful. When you express gratitude, the thanks rebound. You have supporters when you need them.


Gratitude doesn’t replace reasonable wages, but it enhances the playing field. Everyone benefits from a culture of gratitude, and some companies are figuring out to how to support it. Zappos and Southwest Airlines offer peer-recognition programs to encourage co-workers to appreciate each other. Google has a Chief Happiness Officer, and the corporate credo includes “We love our employees and we want them to know it.”

Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to go overboard. When Natalie Massenet, the founder of online luxury retailer Net-a-Porter, wanted to thank a retiring CEO for all he had done, she enlisted a hip-hop singer in a flowing blue gospel gown along with acrobats, samba dancers, and a steel-drum band. Thousands of employees across three continents joined either live or on video screen, singing: “It’s time to say job well done!/You’re the best you’re the greatest one!”

We can’t all express gratitude with a gospel choir and singing global workforce. But on Labor Day, a simple thanks (or better still) a handwritten note can make a huge difference in how we feel about ourselves, our bosses, and our work. It is indeed time to say job well done. We all want to hear it, and life is better for everyone when we do.

Janice Kaplan is former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine. Her new book is “The Gratitude Diaries.”



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