'Corner Office': Invest in Your Brightest

Don't overlook incidentals. Tuition is the biggest expense for most adult students, but miscellaneous fees, books and supplies can add up. Consider reimbursing all related costs (when receipts are provided) or offering a fixed amount to offset those costs.

Be consistent in your support. Don't say that you support education and then make it all but impossible for an employee to pursue it. Don't refuse to modify an employee's schedule once in a while, for example, or deny a request for a day off to take a final. If you decide to reimburse tuition, buy into the whole process.

Decide whether to attach strings. Some employers stipulate that any employee receiving tuition reimbursement must stay with the company for a fixed period of time (usually at least a year) after completing the program. If an employee leaves before that, she must repay some or all of the tuition. Employers simply want a return on their investment.

Our advice is not to make such stipulations. Yes, you run the risk of paying for someone's education and then losing him. But most employees are fair-minded. The question to ask is whether you really want an employee who doesn't want to be there and is staying only because he "has" to. In addition, trying to recover the money will be time-consuming and costly — perhaps more than the money is worth.

Remind employees of their total compensation. Because employees don't "see" the tuition money in their paychecks they can "forget" that they're receiving it. But the investment is part of their total compensation. Remind them of that during their annual review so they can see all the rewards of working for you.

Advice for Staying Out of Jail

Whatever standards you determine for reimbursement, use them consistently. Don't pick and choose who gets the money based on whether you like them.

Be careful not to attach promises to any reimbursement. For example, don't get in a position of having to pay the tuition even if the company can no longer afford it. And don't guarantee an employee a promotion at the end of the program unless you can and will deliver.

And keep track of any reimbursement and keep records in the appropriate files.

Bob Rosner is the co-author of The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning workingwounded.com. He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: bob@workingwounded.com.

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