What top employees want and what their employers think they want are often two different things, according to a recent survey by Watson Wyatt (www.watsonsyatt.com). The Washington, D.C.-based human resources consulting firm asked 410 North American companies and 3,600 of their top performers to name the perks most likely to keep them happy.

“There is a gap between what employers think is important for attracting high-performing employees and what those employees think,” says Rick Beal, an architect of the study. “Financial reward is not the number-one motivator. These people are more motivated by things that help enrich their career.”

The three most prized non-monetary perks were advancement opportunities (76 percent), flexible work schedules (73 percent), and opportunities to learn new skills (68 percent).

“One of the things we've looked at for years is the perception of whether performance or merit pay works. Most companies say they are tired of differentiating performance,” says Beal. “But employees say performance rewards work for them.”

However, only 24 percent of respondents said that they view rewards as a means of engaging workers to improve performance. This is a mistake, says Beal. “Notwithstanding the current slowdown, the tight labor market demands that employers be more aggressive and creative with their rewards.”

However, “this isn't an either/or situation,” says David Hosrichter, partner and Midwest leader for Unifi (www.unifi.com). The $1 billion human resources division of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta recently surveyed top dot-com employees and found a preference for a balanced compensation package. “High performers don't just want money, learning opportunities, or whatever. The truth is, they want it all.”