SMALL BUSINESSES represent some 3.5 million enterprises across the United States. Recognition can be a competitive advantage for small companies, yet they often overlook some of the most important things they can do, thinking they just don't have the resources to motivate employees.

Not Joe Ball, who owns Ellis Well Drilling in Clermont, Fla. Joe has only four full-time employees and one half-time employee. “It's companies like mine that are the backbone of America — not H.J. Heinz, IBM, or Pratt and Whitney,” he told me. “There is no better character-building experience than making payroll for a small business each week.” Small companies consistently employ more people than these mega-companies, yet, he said, “we are virtually ignored in discussions about employee motivation.”

How do you motivate just four people? Joe can't use tools such as “Employee of the Month,” and he can't afford $1,000 scholarships. Here are a few things he does do:

  • He makes small employee loans. Interest-free.

  • He is very lenient with family and/or health issues, such as the need to be with someone during surgery. He never makes people take their formal time off during such events.

  • He allows employees to use company equipment.

  • He encourages employees to take kids with them to work, when necessary and possible.

  • He allows people to take off from work in the early to midafternoons on Fridays.

  • He supports any and all reasonable training opportunities. “I regard school as a benefit,” he said. “It's a day away from the job with a free lunch, and it's not stressful.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego; best-selling author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees; and a frequent presenter to management groups and conferences. For more information, visit