Seventy percent. That’s the number of employees in this country who couldn’t care less about their jobs. Your disengaged staff are cutting every corner they can, searching for a bigger, better deal on company time, and many are actively badmouthing your business. The cost to you is real: between $3,000 and $10,000 in decreased productivity and serious rain on your PR parade. Try attracting top talent when word on the street is that your employees are dying to leave.

Smart business leaders know that the key to success lies in employees who love their jobs. “Your employees are your company’s real competitive advantage,” is how entrepreneur Richard Branson sees it. “They’re the ones making the magic happen—so long as their needs are being met.”

The question is: what are these needs, and how can you meet them?

  1. Treat your employees as well as you do your best customers. “Leaders who are able to create sustainable, high-performance cultures over the long term see their primary purpose as serving the employees on their teams—not just the other way around,” says Matt Tenney, author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons From A Prison, A Monastery, And A Boardroom. “These ‘servant leaders’ realize that when people know we truly care about them—and not just about what we can get out of them—they tend to go the extra mile.”
  2. Transform your employees into passionate disciples. This according to Michael J. Silverstein, author of Rocket: Eight Lessons to Secure Infinite Growth. Companies like The Container Store, Whole Foods, Starbucks, and other high-performing retailers understand that it’s not enough to have a building of satisfied employees; they want a culture of evangelists who are crazy about their companies. That passion is a return on the investment that companies make in the well-being and long-term careers of employees. This includes perks like robust employee volunteer and giving programs that foster skills-expansion, leadership training, team building and other benefits through service. Employees notice when company leaders take an interest in them as full individuals and prioritize work-life balance, all of which makes them more loyal, enthusiastic and productive. And more likely to rave about you on Glassdoor.
  3. Stand up for your employees even if it means being disruptive. An excellent example of this is REI’s bold decision last year to close on Black Friday, a day that most retailers look at as their biggest sales day of the year. At a time when Thanksgiving Day is becoming less sacred than ever and creeping into not being a holiday at all for many employees, REI showed guts by walking away from the cash cow of Black Friday.

Still, it makes sense that a company devoted to the outdoors would give its employees time away from their jobs to enjoy the outdoors, especially since many of its frontline employees are trusted experts who sell on the basis of personal experience. “I think REI is onto something,” observes Rocket author Silverstein. “The company is stepping back from short-term comparable-, or comp-store sales and saying, ‘We can win the hearts and minds of our employees with a policy of generosity and consideration.’ Other forward-thinking companies are saying similar words.” And customer loyalty springs around the loyalty that companies like REI are showing their employees. That explains the growth spurt that has occurred under the watch of REI’s bold new CEO.

  • Define a social mission and let your employees lead the way. Forget about checkbook charity and one-day shows of goodwill. Today’s employees demand that your company own up to its role as a global citizen on the world stage, and that translates into a thoughtful, ongoing commitment to the ways that your company can uniquely make a difference. Empowering your employees to be the brand ambassadors of your commitment to the community is a win-win in every way; 93% of employees who volunteer are happy with their employer, and consumers trust employees more than anybody else at your company (that includes you, Ms. CEO). Creating measurable community impact increases your brand value, which in turn increases employee attraction, retention, and engagement. It’s an upward spiral that spikes every possible metric of organizational success, creating an inspiring workplace that resonates in your product and people.

It’s tough for some old-thinking leaders to embrace an employee-first mentality, which flies in the face of the traditional top-down mentality that puts employees at the bottom of the pyramid. But in this brave new world of fractured attention spans, hyper-competition, and an influential Millennial voice, companies are well-served to recognize that strong brands start with a passionate workforce.