'Corner Office': Invest in Your Brightest

— You probably aren't in a position to be quite as magnanimous with employees as the MacArthur Foundation, but you can do the next best thing.

Every year, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation makes grants to a distinguished group of MacArthur Fellows. These grants, popularly known as the MacArthur Genius Grants, are given to individuals who show "exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work."

The grants are paid in quarterly installments over five years, and they are given with no restrictions or requirements that the recipients report back. The grants are simply votes of confidence in gifted people. The nearly 600 recipients include novelist Thomas Pynchon, filmmaker John Sayles, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp, and actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

So with the "genius grants" as your example, why not do the next best thing, and reimburse the tuition of employees pursuing college or postgraduate degrees?

Tuition reimbursement is an investment in your best and brightest, those people ambitious enough to pursue an education even while working. As employees develop their skills, you can reap the rewards of those improved skills on the job. It's a win-win for everyone.

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Establish parameters for reimbursement. Some employers believe that education — any education — is good for employees and, ultimately, for the company. Accordingly, they offer to reimburse tuition for any college courses (or the equivalent) that an employee might elect to take. That includes everything from a weekend class in travel photography to coursework for an MBA.

There's nothing wrong with such generosity. However, it may make more sense to limit your reimbursement to classes that directly support an employee's current job or established career path. The reason is that if the company has financial difficulties at some point, you aren't put in the position of having to decide which classes seem worthwhile and which do not; it's cleaner to have a business rationale.

Put your program in writing. To avoid misunderstandings, make certain your tuition reimbursement plan is in writing, covers all the bases, and is distributed to all employees.

Ask for a plan. Unless you decide to reimburse any course, it's a good idea to ask employees to present a plan. The plan should explain what their overall objective is (are they pursuing a degree, or seeking specific skills?), where they plan to enroll, what coursework (generally) they plan to take, and when they expect to finish. Asking for a plan helps ensure that you're supporting employees who are serious about their goals.

Clarify expectations. Avoid hurt feelings by clarifying an employee's expectations before she begins classes. An employee may enroll in an MBA program because she believes that employees with MBAs earn more, for example. If that's true, give her a range of what her postgraduate salary may be. If it's not true, say so. It's better for her to know at the outset than to expect something you can't deliver.

Monitor progress. Ask to see employees' transcripts. It's not unreasonable to expect proof that employees have completed the courses they claim to be taking. It's also not unreasonable to make reimbursement contingent on employees earning passing marks. For those reasons, most employers reimburse expenses after classes are taken, not before.

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