June 18, 2012 | last updated June 19, 2012 1:53 pm

Bonuses, perks make a comeback

Photo / Steve Laschever
Photo / Steve Laschever
Digital-imaging promoter Steven Fowler stumbled upon a fresh approach for motivating his team at Visual Experts in East Windsor.
Photo / Steve Laschever
Manchester human resources adviser Barbara AmEnde, left, is among experts seeing more bonuses and perks flowing to executives and their staffs. Meriden entrepreneur Michael Vigeant, right, instituted them for his hourly staff. His company's reward: Higher output, profits and morale.
Photo / Lisa Wilder

The bonus pendulum is swinging back in favor of executives as well as the rank-and-file workers.

Connecticut employers — those eager to retain their most productive managers and workers and ones fearful those employees will land in the laps of competitors — are plying workers with extra pay as well as cashless perks: gift and gasoline cards, movie tickets, meals and parking, or extra time off, local human resources experts say.

It's a trend many larger U.S. companies saw coming and have been bracing for about a year, since the first firms revived bonuses and other incentives, job place observers say. More "golden handcuffs'' are likely to appear once the economy heats up and could trigger a pay-bonus bidding war.

Hiring specialist Robert Half International found in a year-end 2011 national survey that includes some Connecticut employers that many had reinstated small bonuses.

So far in 2012, Half's Hartford/Springfield/Albany Metro Area Manager Kelleigh Marquand says more firms are talking up bonuses that are likely to be in the upper range — a tasty carrot for thousands of the region's chief executives and their operations, sales and marketing, and finance lieutenants.

"I don't remember a time in the last 15 years when companies have been this concerned about losing their best talent,'' said Ed Poff, president of SIMA Career Coaching in Avon.

They have reason to be. Normally, a certain percentage of workers are fishing for that next big payday, hiring authorities say. However, until recently, the anemic U.S. recovery since the Great Recession officially ended 2 years ago has kept the lid on job-hopping.

Worse for employers is the latest Aon Hewitt survey showing greater numbers of workers who feel disengaged from their workplaces and have little motivation to contribute to their current employers' success, said Jane Kwon, associate partner in the human resources adviser's New York office.

"There's a backlog of people who are kind of antsy,'' Poff said. "People are doing more. Now that the economy is improving, there are a lot more jobs out there. Now, the best talent in companies are looking around.''

In March, David Levenson, head of Hartford Financial Services Group Inc.'s wealth management division, agreed to a $2 million bonus if he stays through next February. This was right when the markets rippled with news that The Hartford was jettisoning its annuity business.

In a statement, The Hartford said, "Mr. Levenson has a critical role in implementing the company's plan to sell three large-scale businesses, which is an important and time-consuming task. As such, the company believes it is important to take the appropriate steps to keep him engaged as he leads this transition." Levenson did not comment.

Most employers, especially large ones, won't talk openly about their bonus pay and retention programs for obvious reasons.

However, smaller firms like The Center for Research Inc. (CRI) in Meriden aren't so shy.

Owner Michael Vigeant only saw bonuses three or four of the first eight years after he joined the consumer-research firm in 1998. However, once he acquired CRI in 2009, he initiated an incentive plan for his 25 employees that pays them hourly-wage bonuses, plus gift cards and other perks, for meeting or exceeding daily performance metrics.

The response was revelatory and immediate, Vigeant said. Not only did productivity and the quality of customer surveys improve along with CRI's bottom line, but so did workers' morale — from supervisors on down.

But Vigeant didn't stop there. Worried that CRI's week-long Christmas shutdown was being marginalized among workers as an entitlement, he shifted gears. To get the week off now, the entire company must meet specific performance and profitability targets.

"Now, everybody has skin in the game,'' Vigeant said. "Now, people get excited.''

Visual Experts in East Windsor had a similar experience after launching an incentive program for workers at the firm whose digital services include everything from video production to designing Web sites and business cards.

President and CEO Steven Fowler said his firm — formerly Video Experts — stumbled on its pay-for-performance perks almost as an after-thought. Two years ago, facing a deadline crunch for a state project, Fowler dumped it into the lap of one of his workers who finished it on time and with better-than-anticipated results.

Fowler was so impressed — and guilty — he rewarded the worker with a $50 gift card. Not coincidentally, it was at that time Fowler opted to shelve his yearend bonus plan due to the struggling economy.

Then it dawned on him, he said, there was no need to wait until the end of the year to recognize the efforts of his seven full- and part-time workers and a handful of outside contractors. Instead, each is eligible for $25, $50 and $100 gift cards for meeting project milestones.

"It seems to work well,'' he said. "It's kind of like you reward the behavior as soon as it happens and it's reinforced.''

Manchester human resources adviser Barbara AmEnde, who coached CRI and Visual Experts in setting up their "thank-you'' programs, says often it is the seemingly small rewards that mean a lot to workers.

April is the busiest month of the year at tax and accounting firms. David H. Angliss, a CPA in Rocky Hill, is an AmEnde client who regularly plies staff with fresh fruit and occasionally brings in a massage therapist to relieve staff tension.

Each April 15, with their work finished by midday, Angliss, as he has done his 22 years in practice, locks the door and drives his five-person staff to lunch and gives them the rest of the day off.

"I think the people are happier. They look forward to it,'' he said. "It makes them feel like they're part of a team … I get the satisfaction of spending time with the staff and seeing them enjoy themselves.''

Of course, what works for a CPA firm may not at some other employer, said AmEnde, who worked in human resources for Asea Brown Boveri/Combustion Engineering and others before striking out on her own.

The best ones ask employees how they'd like to be rewarded, she said.

"It's listening to your culture,'' AmEnde said, "and coming up with a bonus/reward that fits that.''

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