Each February, The Oregonian daily newspaper in Portland sends a few lucky people to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla. The purpose of the trip is training — but it has developed a reputation as a desirable perk for the newspaper's reporters and editors, who either make a pitch to managers for a course they would like to take or are selected for the trip by the company's director of training.

“People recognize that Poynter is a great opportunity to improve their skills and to visit a nice place,” says Peter Bhatia, executive editor.

“The people who typically get the opportunity to go have demonstrated records of success or great potential,” he adds. “In that sense, the trip is a perk. But I think we'd see it that way even if Poynter backed up on a toxic waste site as opposed to Tampa Bay. Nobody minds going to Poynter in February — but I don't think that's the primary reason we go.”

Training as a Reward

Can training ever really be an incentive?

David Lee says yes. As president of HumanNature@Work, a human resources consulting firm in Bar Mills, Maine, he translates research on human nature into the workplace and endorses the concept of selling work as a perk without qualification.

“Training as an incentive has more meaning than just a trip or a monetary reward,” Lee argues. “I also think it's a great idea because you're combining both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. They are getting an extrinsic reward for excellence — tapping into extrinsic motivation. But you are also tapping into one of the most powerful intrinsic motivators: the desire for mastery. Mastering a task, being good at what you do, is hugely self-reinforcing.”

So, the thinking goes, training helps your employees to become even better at what they do and to get more opportunities to experience the thrill of victory, which in turn makes them want to learn more and do more to experience more of that good feeling. Thus, the effect is more long-lasting and generative.

Don't believe it?

“In my research, work and perk are two categories,” says Bob Nelson, PhD, president of Nelson Motivation Inc., CMI columnist, and author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. “Does it have motivating elements? There's no doubt about it. In the top 10 motivators that employees most value, learning and development come out No. 5.

“Training sets you up; it's an honor to be asked,” he adds. “It says, ‘You're selected for advancement; you get visibility; you get to meet other people. You've been selected to attend a leadership academy. We're able to let you off your job because of the potential you have for the organization.’”

However, he says, “the whole training industry would cringe if you said that it's just a perk. But that is an aspect of it.”

“I think it's misguided,” says training consultant Kevin Eikenberry, president of the Kevin Eikenberry Group, Indianapolis. “If an organization wants to think about using training as a perk, they're mixing their goals. It's only going to be seen as a perk if the location is extremely desirable, in which case they're not interested in the training. Then it's only about going to the beach or playing golf. If companies think they're going to get a two-for-one out of it, that's a mistake.”

Know Your Audience

If you want to present a training trip as a reward, you need to consider closely whom you're presenting it to. Lin Grensing-Pophal, author of Motivating Today's Employees (2003, Self-Counsel Press), suggests targeting the high achievers, people who want to expand their talents, or more senior people who are at the top of their salary range. “Training as a perk appeals to employees who value professional development and excellence — the ones who will be especially important to your organization's success in a talent-driven economy,” she says. “I have used it for staff that has maxed out of their salary range. One woman highly valued the opportunity to go for ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ training as a personal development opportunity.”

“In any type of high-tech field where a superstar is exponentially more valuable than a B player,” Lee says, “emphasizing training is even more important” for those who want to be A players.

Others say that there is no formula for determining which employees will consider training to be a reward and which ones will begrudgingly accept and view the trip more as a punishment.

“We have found in our 37 years of business that training appeals to all our employees, including hourly, exempt staff, and leadership,” says Janet Guyler, vice president of human resources at Cox Target Media in Largo, Fla. “To date, we have focused our training on our leadership and our sales force. But as we look to 2006 and beyond, our training programs will target all employee groups.”

Of course, there will always be those employees who will never view training as a perk.

“Of the people I supervise, some would look at it as work,” Grensing-Pophal says. “For them, being away from home, away from family, would be a disincentive. I've also seen resentment from people who are constantly being pushed to learn new and greater things; they might feel they're not valued for what they already know.”

Most important is to consider why you want to send a person on a training trip. Are you doing it for you — or for them?

Be honorable, and make sure that the training is something truly valued by the person, and that it's not just something the company wants, Lee says. “When employees feel that some type of recognition contradicts their daily experience, then it [does not motivate but] has the opposite effect.”

Let Them Go — or Not?

When it comes to sending her direct reports to training, Lin Grensing-Pophal, author of Motivating Today's Employees, has a three-part criterion:

DEFINITELY YES: “If they are offered speaking opportunities relative to their job or career, that's an automatic yes,” she says. “It's an easy yes if it's in Eau Claire, where the company is. If not, if the travel costs are reasonable, under $200, that's a yes, too. If it's an annual conference for an organization they're a member of, or if it's a national association of which they're an accredited member, that's a yes.”

PROBABLY YES: “If it's an immediate training need, if they have new responsibilities and they need help in that role, that's probably a yes. I'll probably also approve if they've been asked to attend by one of their internal clients.”

PROBABLY NO: “If it's in an exotic location [that's likely a no]. I'm especially likely to say no to people I don't observe doing those things but are always asking to go to Hawaii. Also, if the information could be obtained readily through other means, such as reading a book or viewing a webcast.”

What You're Really Saying

David Lee, president of HumanNature@Work, a human resources consulting firm in Bar Mills, Maine, found an interesting way to illustrate the underlying messages you communicate to employees when you offer them a training trip. Imagine that your business is a foreign film and the only way you can communicate is through the subtitles along the bottom of the screen.

Here's what Lee believes your employees will see:

  1. We want to invest in you. You're important to us.
  2. We care about you. More specifically, we know that you care about your employability and your career success, and this is a way for us to help you remain employable and continue to become more successful.
  3. We know you care about your professional development.
  4. We know that a training trip is a win/win, and that's the goal of effective management.