Why Are We Paying Employees?

Strange question to ask, right? Still, it’s something I have been thinking a lot about lately, because I think the true answer to this question lies at the heart of employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

Now when I pose this question, I am not literally questioning why we pay people, not in the sense of ‘should we or shouldn’t we.’ I mean it in a different way.

When you get hired for a job, it usually comes with a pretty elaborate job description of what you need to accomplish for that role: what you will do, what is required of you, and what you can expect from the company. Most of these requirements and expectations are task-oriented, listing all the responsibilities you will need to take on in order to be successful in that role. And for this, the company agrees to compensate you. In a perfect world, you are evaluated in your job upon the set results and outcomes you accomplish.

And yet, a funny thing happens when you actually get into the job. A new element is added to the rubric of how well you perform, or I should say how well people perceive you are doing your job.


For many positions, it is just as important that you are seen working for 40 hours as it is to actually accomplish the job. For many companies, perceptions of how hard an individual works is very much tied to hours that employee is seen working, irrespective of what they actually accomplish. Now I am not saying that if you do nothing all day as long as you sit there for 40 hours, you’ll be fine. You won’t. But what is absolutely true is that if you aren’t working your full 40 hours, you will run into perception issues, even if you accomplish all your tasks and goals. Why is that?

For many jobs today, you have the ability to be flexible. Yet, our societal standards dictate that working less than the 40 hours is frowned upon, even if you’ve completed your job to the satisfaction of your company. You are looked upon as a slacker, or as taking advantage of the system. To be clear, I am speaking about mostly non-direct customer facing jobs—if you are a bank teller or a store manager, set hours are vital. You can’t pick and choose when you want to work or for how long in certain industries and fields.

This brings me back to my original question: why are we paying employees? Do you pay them to do a job, or to work 40 hours a week? Take a second to think about the difference between these two questions, and understand how each creates fundamental differences in how your employees will operate. You may say the answer is both. I would argue that deep down, if you are really honest with yourself, you will place one above the other. How you answer that question will directly affect how you manage your people, who you hire, and most importantly, determine the engagement and productivity levels of your employees. Let me share why.

It is important to recognize that we do not work the same way we used to. Most jobs are no longer production jobs where X numbers of hours means X numbers of widgets produced. Most jobs are intellectual, and there is no direct correlation between logged time and outcome. Time itself does not mean productivity. On the other hand, there is absolutely a correlation between employees’ mental states and their outcomes.

We’ve all been there. There were days when you ‘worked’ 8 hours, but in reality only did about an hour’s worth of real work because you just weren’t motivated. You were there in body, but not in effort. And there are days when you are firing on all cylinders, and get an incredible amount of work done in just a short period of time—10 times more than you did the day before. Time is not 1:1 when determining outcomes for these jobs.

The biggest problem I see is that when the time factor is incorporated, or weighted equally with the outcomes and performance of a job, you create an environment where a person becomes more concerned about their evaluation compared to their peers and superiors within the company, rather than the work they are actually doing.

It becomes more important to look busy and fill the time than to actually focus on getting the job done.

When you set the precedent that you pay your employees to be there for 40 hours, I believe you actually limit their ability to do their jobs efficiently, creatively, and with passion. When you let go of the need to monitor their hours, and instead focus on holding them accountable to their outcomes and tasks as defined by their job descriptions, you allow employees to take ownership of their work, and to simply get things done and do their best.

This small but profound shift in thinking can have remarkable results for your company. But it’s not easy. It requires letting go of our old notions of what ‘work’ means. It requires strong leaders to completely trust their employees to do their job. It requires employees to be empowered to live up to the standards the company sets, and to become the best versions of themselves at work.

This change may seem unrealistic, or even impossible. I assure you, it is not. It means creating a culture where you decide as a company that you will empower up your employees, not manage down. It means setting the bar high and letting employees rise to meet the challenges instead of setting the bar low and micromanaging people because you believe that you must do so in order to get results.

So, why do you pay your employees? I would love to know what you think, or more importantly, I would love to have a conversation with you about this. Do you think your company could use some help shifting your mindset?

Share your thoughts with me know in your comments below—I promise you we could get a lot done in less than 40 hours.