In December 2003, REMODELING published “Field Cruise,” a guest column by Susan Meynell, co-owner with her husband, Paul Meynell, of Acadia Post & Beam. In her commentary, Susan wrote about giving Acadia's employees and their spouses a Caribbean cruise as a Christmastime perk in 2002. The last lines of the essay are, “Total cost per person: approximately $800. Total value to our company spirit: priceless.”

But less than a year later that spirit had been, if not broken, then slightly damaged. “I'm not sure who said, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,'” says Susan, “but I sure do have a much greater understanding of the meaning of it.”

According to the Meynells, after the cruise — which combined team meetings about the company's direction and suggestions for improvements with parasailing, touring, dancing, and swimming — employees asked for raises. Company policy was to give raises based on merit and availability of money.

Of the six employees who went, five have left the company. Both Susan and Paul believe the cruise was too much of a perk, too overwhelming. “Maybe they got it into their minds that we had more money than we actually did,” because of what they perceived as an expensive trip, Paul says. Also that year, Paul had started employees on a simple IRA plan in which Acadia would match up to 3% of the employee's gross — so raises were not in the equation.

“When considering how to reward employees, remember that job satisfaction, being listened to, feeling part of a team, performing work that matters — all these are higher on the list than monetary compensation,” says Melanie Hodgdon, president of Bristol Systems Management in Bristol, Maine. “But when there's a perception that the company is ‘holding out' money, all the other good feelings dissolve.”

Hodgdon suggests keeping rewards tied to measurable criteria such as productivity, meeting deadlines, staying under budget, and going above and beyond. “This ties the reward to the action, is immediate, and should be at an appropriate scale.”

The Meynells learned this lesson the hard way. After calling other local small businesses, they came up with what Susan calls a “humble list of inexpensive offerings”: keep a good coffee maker, premium coffee, and real mugs in the office; let an employee take a day off with pay on his or her birthday; offer a day off with pay before a major holiday; give memberships to a local fitness center or store, such as Sam's club; give gift certificates for a dinner for two or tickets to a theater production or sporting event. And don't forget an old-fashioned pat on the back.