When Your Employee Receives ‘An Offer He Can’t Refuse’

I love the movie ‘The Godfather.’

Yes, part of it might have to do with my Italian heritage and how extended family reunions always seemed to be more than a bit like the wedding scene that opened the movie. But it’s more than that. ‘The Godfather’ is brilliant, innovative storytelling at its finest.

In that wedding scene, Don Corleone is meeting with various people in a dark study while the party goes on outside. One by one, those with requests are brought before The Godfather because, as everyone knows, the Don can refuse no request on the day of his daughter’s wedding.

When it’s Johnny Fontane’s turn, he asks Don Corleone for help in securing a movie role that could resurrect his failing career. The Godfather says he will make it happen and that someone will contact him in about a month, but Johnny whines about how the shoot is expected to begin in a week. The Don tells him not to worry and says, “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Now, let’s forget about how this “offer” ends up being the head of the movie producer’s horse winding up in bed with him. The point is this: Everyone’s got a price at which they will change course. In the modern business world, sometimes it’s money. Sometimes it’s better work/life balance or better benefits or better job security.

I admit it. I had a price.

That’s why, effective this Friday, I’ll be leaving my position with Shriners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis.

Here’s the thing: I never wanted to leave. When I applied for the job, when I interviewed for the job, when I accepted the job, when I started the job, it was a dream. To tell the stories of brave children and world-class physicians, amazing donors and talented nurses — that’s what I was made to do.

In my year there, I was able to do some of the best, most interesting storytelling of my life. I had creative freedom, great colleagues and a supervisor who understood I work best when handled with loose reins. On top of that, I flourished as a leader, developing processes and plans that brought structure and success to the department and the hospital.

For all of this, I was rewarded with praise that filled my “good things” folder, and the hospital was rewarded with greater visibility, engagement and donor dollars.

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The salary was never there.

The reality is, I can’t support my family on positive feedback for work that isn’t compensated with a salary in line with what someone of my experience, education and ability is valued at in the St. Louis region. Feel-good stories won’t pay for my son’s college education. The amazing mission of the hospital doesn’t cover my alternative medicine treatments that are needed to address Longhaul COVID hell. And one day I’d like to be the donor giving thousands of dollars to the hospital.

When I took the job, I knew the salary was far below what I was valued at in the market. The problem at the time was that I had no way to prove my value. I had come from what had deteriorated into a really nasty job situation and had no real portfolio of work in which I could take pride. So I accepted the offer for what it was and came up with a timeline during which I would prove my value to the hospital and the entire system.

According to the feedback I received from my supervisor, from colleagues, from those at sister hospitals throughout the country, from patient families, I did that. Yes, I thought I was doing a good job, but these folks told me I was doing a great job, that I was setting the standard for the entire Shriners Hospital system. Management was sharing the plans and processes I developed with marketing folks at our other hospitals as an example of what to do.

I did my research and used objective data to show what someone like me should be getting paid in this area. Keep in mind: We’re not talking about a small difference here. I was being undervalued by at least 35 percent and as much as 65 percent. I was essentially doing the job of someone one or two position titles ahead of me but not getting paid for it. That’s significant and unsustainable when you’re watching your savings disappear in not-so-small chunks each month. And we weren’t living a life of luxury. The deficits were coming despite significant belt tightening.

So I presented this information to my supervisor and her supervisor and respectfully asked for a raise.

I won’t get too much into what happened next, though that’s largely because not much happened next. For someone who had been so widely and loudly praised by my supervisor and for someone who could demonstrate a significant increase in revenue for the hospital thanks to his marketing work, I was treated like I’d farted in church.

No one ever disputed the independent, factual data that showed the discrepancy between my value and my pay. Rather, I was told that presenting those facts didn’t go over with my supervisor’s supervisor as well as I might have hoped. My supervisor said she’d talk to her supervisor but that he was so busy and it wouldn’t happen for three weeks.

She never thought it necessary to tell me the results of that conversation, even more than a month after those three weeks, which left me wondering if it ever happened.

So I accepted what they were saying through their silence — that they really liked the things I brought to the department but that they just weren’t willing to pay for them. That’s fine. They have every right to have a certain pay rate for a certain job description.

What I had at that point was a solid portfolio of work to share and a bit of a positive reputation in the area. So I listened to other opportunities, and when the right one came along with a salary that more than fairly compensates me for what I can bring to the table, well, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So I’m leaving a place I love. I’m leaving a place that has a mission I will always support and ask you to support, too. Shriners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis is an amazing place with amazingly talented doctors and medical personnel who change lives every single day.

Two Realities Companies Can Learn From This

I share this story for no other reason than to praise my colleagues and to illustrate a business-world point: You can’t underpay your top performers and expect to keep them. Were I the only one ever frustrated by the lack of competitive compensation, I would say nothing and consider myself a weird anomaly in the system. But I’m not.

Oh, people do stay at jobs for which they are underpaid. They’re not the main/only source of income for their families or they’re at a different station in life than I am or they are so in love with the mission they are willing to overlook the inequity. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things.

Reality No. 1: Know What The Market is Saying Your Top Performers are Worth

If you don’t pay competitive wages, you’re going to lose people to places that do. To say “that’s just how we operate” is to ignore the huge dangers presented to an organization by brain drain. I know someone will fill my position, but I have confidence enough in what I bring to the table to believe they’re not going to get someone who can do what I did and was going to do for the rest of my career. Not if they don’t dramatically increase the salary. Not for the long term.

And the cost of turnover to a business is high. The most accepted studies say it’s as high as six to nine months of a salaried employee’s pay. So if you had a manager making $60,000 a year, that’s between $30,000 and $45,000. To not pay fair wages according to the market you’re in is short-sighted.

Reality No. 2: Have the Systems in Place to Reward Your Top Performers

When I demonstrated the pay discrepancy, I was told a slew of things that were the business’s problems, not mine. Among them:

  1. “We don’t move that fast.” That’s OK, but someone else will move that fast and poach your top performers.
  2. “The matter needs to be taken before the joint boards at headquarters, and the soonest that can happen in November.” There is so much wrong with this sentence that it numbs the mind. There is no way the salary of the marketing guy in St. Louis should ever be talked about at a meeting of the joint boards of Shriners International. If your process to address a pay discrepancy in one hospital involves a quarterly meeting of people a thousand miles away who know nothing of the work being performed by the person they’re discussing, you’ve got a systemic problem.

By the time that conversation was over, there was not much they could have done to keep me there long term. When a person takes the time to present a factual case based on independent data and your own praise for him, and your response is to talk about the business’s inefficiencies while never once addressing the facts — and then you don’t even get back to that person with an answer one way or another — well, as far as I am concerned, that’s not a place I trust as the means I use to support my family.

The point is this: You can lose good people even if you eventually give them what they’re asking for. The way your business is run or the manner in which your managers communicate information can be so inefficient and unprofessional as to thrust your top performers into the arms of another company.

Smart businesses don’t do that. Smart businesses recognize when their processes have become outdated and then innovate to ensure it would take a horse head in their top employees’ beds to get them to leave.

Otherwise, all it might take is fair compensation.

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