Today's economic climate is making it tougher for businesses to raise the salaries and benefits of top-flight employees.- Even so, many custom operators are finding that a few well-placed, low-cost gestures can go a long way toward keeping employees motivated and feeling appreciated until better times return.

It's becoming more and more challenging to maintain the compensation program — competitive salary, profit sharing and 100% paid health insurance — he has traditionally offered his 30 full-time employees, says silage consultant Tim Tuttle, owner of Double T Feed in Fillmore, UT.

“Last year it was especially tough,” says Tuttle, who does custom chopping in six Western states. “Our expenses were up, and at the same time, our customers were going through very tough times and wanted to pay less for our services. We were straightforward with our employees, let them know that things were tight and that we would all have to step up and find ways to improve so that we could keep offering benefits.”

At the same time, Tuttle looked for other ways to let employees know they were integral to the company's success. He now sends cards on employee birthdays with coupons that can be redeemed at a local convenience store. If an employee is married, the company also sends a Wal-Mart gift certificate to his or her spouse on the spouse's birthday.

“It's a little thing, but it seems to make a difference,” says Tuttle. “It sends a message to the people who work for us that we care about them as people and appreciate all they do for our company. We understand that, in order for us to be successful, they have to be successful.”

Many business owners and managers often overlook the importance of using relatively low-cost incentives and perks as a way to reward and motivate employees, says ag labor management consultant Don Tyler of Tyler & Associates, Clarks Hill, IN.

“A lot of times, managers assume that good wages, bonuses and job security are the things that matter most to employees,” he says.

“But when we survey employees, we find that, while those things are somewhat important, other things are more important. They're often more interested in intrinsic things like a sense of belonging to an organization, feeling like they're appreciated for what they do or having a solid relationship with the boss.”

Tyler says one key to using these kinds of perks effectively is getting to know employees and their interests on a personal level.

“If you offer somebody a weekend fishing trip but they don't like fishing, you really haven't offered them anything,” he says. “On the other hand, if they really like to watch movies, and you give them a coupon to go to the local video store and add on a box of microwave popcorn, it carries a lot of meaning for them.”

You'll also want to keep spouses and families in mind when deciding what kinds of perks to dole out.

“Maybe the employee has young kids and would like to take them out to dinner more often,” says Tyler. “You could get them coupons at the local Pizza Hut or McDonald's.”

Another option for employees with families would be to send them to a hotel with a pool or activities for a weekend getaway during your slack season. Depending on where you live, the cost of the weekend for a family of four could easily be under $300.

“That might sound pricey to some people,” Tyler says. “But if the alternative is giving a 50¢/hour raise to an employee who puts in 300 hours a month during your busy season, you come out ahead.”

Tyler's amazed at the creative ways employers are providing perks. One of his clients offers Car-Wash Fridays. He supplies water, soap, buckets, etc., for employees to wash their cars in the farm shop, either over the lunch hour or right after work. Several other clients make their farm shops available on certain days of the week for employees to change oil in their vehicles. Some employers provide labor and/or filters and oil.

Many perks won't cost anything up front.

“Something as simple as recommending a good auto repair shop where they can go to get their cars fixed or an accountant who can help them with their taxes will make a big impression on employees. It might not seem like a big deal to you, but they'll remember it for a long time. To them it says, ‘The boss paid attention when I had a need.’”

Knowing their input is valued will also make an impression on employees.

“The next time you're buying a new forage chopper or semi truck, ask the people who will actually be operating the equipment for you what kind of features they think are important,” he suggests. “Better yet, take them to a restaurant and buy them lunch while you talk about it.”

One caveat: Perks shouldn't be considered a substitute for paying a fair wage.

“Doing these kinds of things won't help you keep employees if you're not competitive on salary,” says Tyler. “But all other things being equal, it could make employees who have other options think twice before going someplace else.”