Our company is an IT service provider which develops software for other companies. To attract customers, we encourage our employees to complete and maintain IT certifications (like Java certificates from Oracle, for example) so we can promote our highly qualified employees in our marketing.

The exam itself and the preparation material is paid for by the company, so employees do not need to shoulder any expenses. I was asked by my boss if I have any ideas on how to motivate our employees to complete certificates? There are several problems we are facing:

  • If an employee is not in a project currently, he has "free time" so he can study during work time for a certificate. However, some employees are in projects and would have to study during off work hours.
  • Certificates, depending on the topic and the personal experience, can take a long time to learn. E.g. I needed 60 hours, but for other certificates where I have no experience in it could take longer. This question is not about certificates where you study for a few days and then can pass the exam.
  • We thought about a financial bonus, the suggestion was $500, but honestly, I won't spent 60 hours or more in my free time to get $500.
  • I also suggested a pay raise, but the problem is that this likely could be seen as "you only get a pay raise if you complete certificates", which demotivates employees even more.

So the biggest problem is to motivate employees which would have to study for certificates in their off work hours because they are on projects. How can this be achieved?

  • 71
    The other employees probably don't see value for them personally in having the certificates. Which is understandable - many "certifications" are barely worth the paper they're printed on, and most programmers see them as only serving to allow people to tick off boxes in sales pitches (which is what is being suggested here). Programmers prefer a meritocracy - show me your value with what you've accomplished in real-world terms, not a certificate.
    – alroc
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 12:20
  • 6
    One simple solution is require them. Whats wrong with increasing the salary of an employee if they complete something the employer wants the employee to have? Of course a certificates in my eyes only tells me I passed a test not that I actually can perform my duties better and/or know anything beyond what allow me to pass the exam. I likely would also forget most of the stuff a week after I passed the exam unless I used it daily. So for me as an employee, most of the time a certificate, is not really useful.
    – Donald
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:16
  • @alroc Certs clearly have more value than you're suggesting as the original poster wouldn't want their staff to take them for nothing. Maybe helping developers understand that the value of certs isn't in proving their worth but is about your (and future employers) ability to market them to your clients.
    – BenCr
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 16:55
  • 12
    @BenCr - That's kind of the point I'm making. Most programmers (IME) don't see value in certificates, they see value in demonstrated, practical knowledge via the completion of actual projects - anyone can pass an exam with the right study guides. If you can convince them that it's going to make the company more prosperous and improve their personal bottom line ("what's in it for me?") and give them the necessary resources to do it while on the clock, you have a better chance at convincing them.
    – alroc
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 17:11
  • @Uooo: This is the trouble. Us working stiffs are pretty cynical about certs - You remember that we had a problem with paper certs in MS Windows, Cisco, CISSP and the like, right? Management probably believe in certs as much as we do - they don't, but they need to sucker in customers with bait - and that bait is the certs that the employees have. I personally think that studying for certs is a waste of time, and I that I am better off studying the material I am interested in on my own, partially because I don't have to be subjected to stupid exam questions like "Who invented the Internet?" Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 15:42

8 Answers 8


motivate employees... to make certificates in their free time because they are on projects

Above is a huge red flag, don't do this.

If it's really in company interests ("so we can say we have highly qualified employees"), don't cheat about personal improvement. What serves the company, should be done in work hours, don't invade into employees private life for that. Keep in mind that forcing employees to work over the reasonable hours (and preparing to certifications is work) can lead to productivity losses, as explained eg in Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity:

...for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot. ...every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits -- starting right now, today -- is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

If it's really in company interests, drop that reasoning like "some employees are in projects". What you need instead is a management 101: prioritize the value of employee being in a project versus that of studying and plan / allocate work hours accordingly.

  • Allocating work hours for employee training and certification is a perfectly normal and widely spread practice, there is no need to deviate from it. For example, I specifically re-checked certifications currently listed in my LinkedIn profile: there are 11 of these that were performed in work hours, suggested / required and paid by companies (this has been at all companies I used to work at) - in other words, those that didn't require artificial self-motivation on my side (for the sake of completeness, the list also contains 5 certifications that I took at my own will, in my free time etc).

Generally, one better be careful about incentives to free hours activities. Just imagine...

- [company] We will pay $1000 if you pass OCJCMC-AC/DC
            certification in your free time.
- [employee] Wow great I'll go for it!

  --- 2-3 months later... ---

- [company] We'll cut your bonus by $2000 because you failed project X.
- [employee] Oh but... but I was in bad shape because I spent
             much effort preparing for certification.
- [company] Oops.
- [employee] WTF?!

This can kill any motivation faster than you say "Oops".

  • 12
    @gnat - Good point, employers sometimes foolishly fall in love with having their employees do things on their own time. Not realizing that it leads to the attrition or disgruntled behavior of their top employees. Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:28
  • 11
    If the employer needs people to do things, then they should prioritize it as part of normal work hours Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:57
  • 2
    indeed, far too many companies expect employees to donate their personal time for free for company events and training (and more often than not pay for the privilege as well). Last company I worked was big on that, required attendance meetings were always after work hours "so as not to cause inconvenience for customers", training could only be done while not on projects (but if you weren't on a project there was automatically no budget for training so you'd not get any either), etc. etc.
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 18:59
  • 4
    Very good answer. It would be fun for one of the OP's employees to turn the question around and tell him 'Since I'm not assigned to a project right now I'm going to clock in and work on a personal project unrelated to our line of business. Because that makes me more valuable to me." Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 19:48
  • 10
    Another thing is that many places the employees are already working significantly more than 40 hours. There is no time or enegery left for studying for a cert. If the OPs workplace expects more than 40 hours on a regular basis, then they can expect that no one will study for the certs and need to fix the basic problem of work hours first. Great link, should be required reading for all managers. People are not machines who can work 24 hours a day.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 22:19

You say you're already providing study materials and covering the exam costs, which is a good start. As gnat's answer says, provide them paid time to study, since it is in the company's interest.

A suggestion based on a successful experience of my own - make it social by organizing group study sessions. Several years ago my employer decided they wanted more people to obtain a certain certification. They organized lunch time study sessions for any employee who wanted to attend. This included buying lunch (pizza, sandwiches, etc.). We picked an appropriate book and worked our way through it. Each person took a turn presenting a topic out of the book. After completing the book and wrapping up the study sessions, I heard that about half the attendees took the certification exam and all who took it passed.

The social aspect can engage people in ways that a solitary study process will not: They may just enjoy the interacting with other employees; they may learn better by discussing the subject in a group; they may get a friendly competition going, or they may like the networking possibilities. I found that I enjoyed the process more due to all of these factors. As suggested in the comments, this should be voluntary.

  • 2
    @RhysW: Good point, thanks. I guess I just assumed it was voluntary - which it was in the personal experience I related. I've explicitly added that to the answer
    – GreenMatt
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 13:53
  • 14
    and DO NOT make it at lunch. If it is important enough for the company to want it done, it is important enough to schedule during the work hours not during the employees personal time.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 22:10

The problem you might be running into is that because so many programming certificates can be easily acquired by cheating, many developers view them as utterly worthless as a way to demonstrate competence.

If that's the case any carrot approaches to get people to earn them off the clock are likely to fail because the certs are seen as a waste of time. Instead you might be forced to apply the stick in a heavy handed manner by making earning certificate X by date Y a condition for continued employment.

The main thing you need to be aware of and plan for with this approach is that if your target group is larger than a few people you'll probably have some who decide they'd rather quit than waste their time on earning a piece of paper they consider worthless.

There are less heavy handed ways to use the stick like giving employee's with certs preference for plum assignments or retention during a staffing cut; but they'll all end up with a similar end result even if they take longer to get there.

Employee's who like certs will get them without complaining; but they probably already had them from before you made it an issue. Good employee's who like their job enough to treat the cert requirement as just one of the ways their current job is less than perfect will grumble and take a morale hit but get them anyway. Poor employees will get the certs even if they think they're worthless because they know they'd have trouble getting a new job if they lose this one. Good employees who think certs are worthless and aren't willing to keep wasting their time earning and maintaining them will leave. Some of the last group might get the initial certs but only because they want to avoid the financial strain that would come from losing their current job before they had a replacement lined up; but they'll still leave asap.

If you current and potential customers value having the contractors they're hiring being certified sufficiently that it allows you to raise the rate at which you're billing them by a non-trivial amount or significantly increase the percentage of new contracts you win the hit you take with current employee's might be worth taking. At the same time, if you can charge an extra $10-30/hour by providing people with certificates passing a larger chunk of that on may ease discontent. Someone who turns his nose up at spending 50 hours for a $500 bonus may change his mind at being paid an extra $5k/year over and above the expected annual raise.

  • 5
    > you'll probably have some who decide they'd rather quit Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:46
  • While some developers have a low opinion of them, they are a necessary evil (like suits in interviews). Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:55
  • 7
    @SimonO'Doherty suits are only a necessary evil in some parts of the industry. Just as you can choose to work for startups, etc where showing up in a suit is a liability you can choose not to work for companies that demand certs. Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:59
  • 8
    Not sure why the downvotes. I personally know people who would not work at a job where they had to wear suits, use a particular OS, pass particular certifications (particularly MS), and various other things. If they had a job that suddenly required them to do those things, they'd quit. A lot of people do have a low opinion of certifications due to cheating/under-qualified candidates passing/paid courses/cost/how the results are reported (pass/fail doesn't tell you much about a candidate), etc, etc...
    – Rob P.
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 16:35
  • @RobP. I suspect it comes down to people not liking that my answer is something they don't like; so while I'm disappointed by the voting I'm not really surprised. If I was vain enough to care about rep I'd've CWed my answer defensively when I posted it. Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 16:48

Good answers already.

It's either important to the company, and thus time should be allocated, or it's not.

When you say "employees would have to study for certificates in their off work hours" you are basically telling employees that certification isn't really important enough for the company to bother spending time on it.

If you really want people to work on certificates, make it a part of their job. Allocate whatever time you want them to spend on gaining certificates either within their project time, or between projects.

Expecting someone to devote their personal free time to something that helps you attract customers isn't a wise business choice.

While I personally haven't found any value for certifications for myself or my team, whenever I want folks to learn something, I provide the opportunity to do so on company time.

  • 1
    Upvoted because this didn't deserve to be in the negatives. But bear in mind that getting certs doesn't only help the company attract customers; it does also make the employee more employable, at least a little bit. Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 0:39
  • 2
    I haven't voted on this, but the downvote might be because you don't have any references or shared personal experiences in your answer to back it up. Please see the faq for more details. My suggestion is, if this is something you've personally experienced in your workplace, tell us about it in an edit to your post. Explain why this is the correct course of action with facts, references, or specific expertise. Hope this helps! :)
    – jmort253
    Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 2:29

In financial services there is a similar dynamic where service providers or consulting firms want to be able to say that a high percentage of their associates have a terminal degree or level of certification in their field, such as a CPA or MBA. Even when the employee already has all of the relevant knowledge and there will be no change in the actual service provided, it increases the firm's ability to sell its services.

If this allows the firm to increase its volume or rates, the employees who are willing to put in the extra effort to achieve certifications the company deems valuable should share in the benefits accrued company in a significant and permanent way.

If you need a high level of participation simply to compete or survive in your industry, you may need to make certification within a certain timeframe a condition of employment or advancement. If this is the case, you are really changing the nature of the job itself which is always difficult. Unless you intend to fire those who don't get certified, you have to create a compelling reason for employees to do additional work on their own time.

Some options you could try include:

1) Offer a limited number of special "Paid Time Off" days to employees to study. Many companies like mine who have a vested interest in community involvement or other activities use these types of programs. However, they typically reward people who already want to do these things, rather than inducing those who were not already interested to participate.

2) Create role-specific requirements that reflect the company's ability to earn. For example, salary bands are often capped. However, you could raise the cap for employees with certain certifications, or say that one must have certifications X, Y, and Z to become a program manager or tech lead. Unlike denying a higher annual raise based on certification, this gives the employee a choice: I can make up to $X without the cert, or up to $Y with the cert, and either will be OK with management because it reflects the difference in what the company can make from the employee. Again, the key is what the company can earn rather than what the employee can produce.

3) Hold an instructor-led exam prep class on-site. This could be a voluntary offering during "lunch" hours, which is often perceived as less intrusive, or could be full-time training for those not on projects at the time.

4) Offer additional non-financial benefits. Many corporate resources, such as training budgets or formal mentoring opportunities are often scarce by nature, forcing the company to allocate them. You can choose to put employees who pursue certs at the top of the list for things like first preference in project assignments, job rotation, mentoring opportunities, or opportunities in emerging technologies. This can be valuable to someone who wants to move into management, change roles, or learn how to work with "the hot new thing".

5) Clarify which certs you value most. If it's "everything", and the list changes every six months, people will feel they will never be able to stay current.

6) Professional status. This is much harder, but ultimately you can create a culture that communicates that you value certification. That's who we hire. That's who we promote. That's who has influence around here. However, you have to accept that a certain number of people will not fit this culture and will leave or become dissatisfied.

I would also question whether employees currently on projects need to study at the same time. Do you really want them splitting their (finite) energy between clients and studying? It may be preferable to encourage or require them to study in a more intensely focused way the next time they have "free" time.

Best of luck!


If $500 isn't enough, raise the price until it is. I believe this is the only way to go.

My former company had a bonus of ~$1300 for each certification - and it worked. Then again, we didn't spend 60 hours on each. More like 20 (Microsoft certificates).

  • Did you learn for your certificates in your free time or work time?
    – Uooo
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 13:23
  • 2
    @w4rumy - It would depends. If its required I would request time while at work to study. If its optional, and I can refuse to get the certificate, I wouldn't study at all because of my personal views on certificates.
    – Donald
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:21
  • @w4rumy: We were allowed to spend half our studying time at work (i.e. getting "double" pay)
    – Nilzor
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 15:24
  • 6
    Double pay? Studying is work, hard work even. Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 16:01
  • 2
    @msalters, if it is part of normal work and expected of you, I would not expect a reward for completion (unless it is a bonus). Commented Feb 14, 2013 at 13:20

You might take a page from the education sector and setup a structured learning program. From what I have seen and experienced, people respond well to deadlines and project milestones. Break apart the larger certificates into small learning targets that an employee can demonstrate mastery in a few hours. String enough of them together and you can create a curriculum sequence that ends with a high enough mastery to get the certificate.

Incentives can be tricky to set properly. Often, when presented an incentive, people act in a way that is unexpected and counterproductive to the result that you want. I would check out [Freakonomics][1]. It's a book, blog, and podcast that talk a lot about incentives and how people react to them. There are many different incentives that you can setup, and picking the right one depends on your workers and culture. An incentive that works in one company is completely out of place in another.

Let's look at some of the common incentives that you may come up with.

Financial Incentives

This is by far the most common that people think of when they talk about incentives. Giving bonuses or increasing someone's pay can work to entice those who place a high value on wealth. Your more materialistic employees will be more likely to respond to this incentive. People who are able to live comfortably with their current wage are more likely to ignore this opportunity.

Scheduling Incentives

This is where you use a person’s work schedule as an incentive. You can use anything like work hours to study, or extra days off for meeting a goal. It could be even something simple like allowing them to have a more flexible schedule. This is a really powerful incentive for those who value their own time. Those who don't have a lot of free time are more likely to respond. Workaholics who love being at work all day will probably ignore this one.

Emotional Incentives

There are a lot of people out there that love being recognized for how great they are. Giving out awards, setting up a way for people to brag or compete are all emotional incentives. There is no monetary gain from completing the task, but they may think that their reputation is more important than money. This is great for highly competitive people who love being at the top of a leader board. People who don’t care what others think will ignore this one.

Political Incentives

Workplace politics are often complicated and difficult to change, which makes this one of the more difficult and dangerous incentives. This kind of incentive is one where you offer things like advancement or prominent positions on projects. In your case, you would only give the lead position of a project to someone who has certain certificates. This type of incentive attracts ambitious people to do what you want.

While I’m sure that there are more types of incentives out there, these are just some that I find the most common. Picking the right incentive requires you to understand the person you are trying to influence. There is no golden incentive that works for all people. The question is not really what incentive you should use, but what kind of people do you want to attract. Once you figure out the target, you can work to figure out what is important to them. That should give you a clue as to what kind of incentive would work for them.

Good Luck


Cash prizes and competition.

My company periodically offers $1,000-2,500 for the first 2-4 employees to complete a certain certification. As others have said, $500 may be too low to seriously motivate someone. Additionally, we're technically required to do some hours of training as part of our jobs anyways, so having to do it outside of work in our free time isn't a strict requirement.

  • I upvoted this back to 0 because I think, while it's not the best answer in all cases, it may be a good answer in some cases (as in your company's case)
    – Codeman
    Commented May 21, 2013 at 23:03
  • 3
    I'd would personally suggest that this practise be avoided... imagine being the 5th person to complete a course... and missing out by a few minutes... how demoralised are you going to be?
    – Stese
    Commented Mar 20, 2018 at 12:12

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