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Ideas and insights for today’s people-centered leaders.

In the midst of the unprecedented and voluntary labor exodus, will companies embrace the incredible opportunity to reimagine the way they treat, employ, and pay their hourly workers? How can companies hit reset and win workers back by building a stronger employee base hinging on a living wage, happiness, and respect?

To further explore this important question, Visier spoke with Tia Graham, the self-proclaimed “Chief Happiness Officer” of her company Arrive at Happy and author of upcoming book, The Happy Leader. Graham has worked in hospitality, led teams in hotels, and has conducted years of research in human happiness and employee morale. She believes instilling value in your workforce is the link to retention of good employees, and attracting the best talent. She credits happiness as the key to a successful business. 

Visier: It’s now been 12 years since the last increase of the federal minimum wage which still sits at just $7.25/hour. In light of COVID and the mass exodus of hourly workers filling service industry roles, the movement to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour seems to be gaining momentum. Why is it important for companies to pay a living wage and how is pay tied to employee happiness and retention?

Tia Graham: In order for people to feel a sense of baseline happiness, they need to be able to have their needs met. If you are struggling to rent a small apartment or get food on the table and can’t sustain your basic needs, it’s going to be very difficult for an employer to keep you if there are other opportunities that pay even a little bit more.

Being paid $7.25/hour makes any chance of upward mobility and economic security, slim. With so many workers walking out and refusing to return, does this indicate how out of touch some companies are with their employees’ needs?

Hopefully what we are seeing is a wake-up call for some companies. These organizations are being forced to consider how much they want their employees and how much they want employees that will be loyal and give good service.

Some big companies like Best Buy, Target, and Wayfair seem to be heeding this wake-up call by offering starting wages of $15/hour. Do you think companies showing leadership by offering a living wage will force competing businesses to do the same?

The research shows if you want to retain your employees or have new workers want to rejoin the industry, your pay and benefits package has to compare to the market. Companies must look at what everyone else is paying and then at least match that. And once you address pay, there are many strategies and tactics that leaders can do to increase their employee morale and happiness and motivation and have it be a great place to work.

Let’s talk about those tactics. You believe employee happiness is linked to value. Why is instilling value a critical component of employee happiness and morale and how does it lead to retention? And why is valuing your employees as important as paying them a liveable wage?

Nothing I teach is about money, it’s all about how you treat people. You can create an amazing culture even for people making an hourly wage. Increasing employees’ morale and motivation isn’t just about the money. It’s about having people feel valued and appreciated. It’s about being compassionate and caring—being a good human.

We’ve been seeing some companies large and small alike offering valuable incentives and benefits in order to attract employees. McDonald’s recently announced their franchises are offering paid time off and are even providing tuition coverage and child and elderly care benefits. And the NYC restaurant group Momofuku announced a $1000 sign-on bonus, parental leave, a 401k program, and even a scholarship program to lure new employees back. 

Yes, the service industry needs to do an authentic rebuilding to create a positive reputation showing they really do care about people—where you’re not just a number. It’s about making every single person feel like they belong, not just because they filled the position. It’s a good thing for companies to show their employees that they care about them as a human being.

In this new COVID world we live in, it seems like a lot of people across all industries and all positions are reevaluating where they are in life, what’s important, and what they want to spend their time doing. How does happiness factor in? 

There are so many direct business metrics tied to employee happiness. It’s extremely important for every single business owner to be focused on employee happiness especially when there’s been a reassessment of what matters in life and people are constantly considering ‘what do I want to do, how do I want to spend my life.’  

If you want more customer loyalty, more employee retention, more customer satisfaction, well—it’s very difficult to do that if employees are not happy. 

Value seems to have so much to do with happiness. How can companies make their employees feel like what they are doing has value in their lives?

So if you have a restaurant, for example, it’s asking ‘how does this restaurant help society and help people?’ Restaurants bring people together—families, couples—and they create human connection. Restaurants are wonderful for society. So having your employees understand why their work matters is key. Just like being valued and mattering as a person is important, having your work matter is such a huge driver of human motivation.

What are five things companies can do to redefine their relationships with their employees putting happiness and value front and center?

1. Be crystal clear on purpose. Why does this business exist? Make sure everyone from top to bottom understands the purpose and the value of the company.

2. Have a positive, optimistic culture. Make sure everyone who’s in charge has positive energy and a positive leadership style. That can go a long way if someone is only making $14 bucks an hour.

3. Have a coaching-feedback culture. Every single people leader, manager and supervisor needs to be trained on how to coach employees in a productive way. Coach for improvement and then coach for recognition and appreciation.

4. Understand and communicate the vision of your company. Once you know the purpose of why you exist, then it’s about getting people excited and energized about where the company wants to go. People like to feel they are a part of something and have a part in growing it. 

5. Foster friendships within the company. When people feel they have a best friend at work, it relates to how profitable a company will be. Foster team connections, do outings, but you don’t have to spend a lot of money. Encourage people to get to know each other and create an environment where friendships blossom, so when another company calls your employees and says, come work with me, that employee will think twice.


Tia Graham is an ‘Inspirationist’ and the founder of Arrive at Happy. She has worked with dozens of global companies such as Goldman Sachs, Hilton Hotels and Kashi to elevate engagement and drive bottom-line results. She has multiple certifications in neuroscience, positive psychology, leadership coaching, and employee morale and her book, The Happy Leader will be published in 2022.

About the Author

Kari Browne is a seasoned journalist and media producer whose work as a senior BBC producer has taken her all over the world, from covering U.S. Presidential elections in Washington, D.C. to the Oscars in L.A., and from the United Nations in New York to the Global Financial crisis while in London. Currently, she is based in Sydney, Australia where she operates Browne Agency, a PR and content consultancy that helps social-justice clientele tell their stories.

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