In April, Jennifer Hwang's bosses at Seattle startup Julep told her to report immediately to a conference room for an unexpected meeting.
Approaching, she noticed the room's windows were papered over so that no one could see in or out.
"It just seemed like a very serious issue," said Hwang, 28.
But anxiety soon turned to joy: Julep's executives had called Hwang there to express appreciation for her hard work and to give her an iPad Mini.
"I felt like Oprah," said Jane Park, founder and CEO of Julep, a fast-growing beauty brand backed by venture capitalists. "It was my most fun day of work ever."
As the economy improves, corporate profits increase, and the job market strengthens, some employers are getting creative to hold on to key employees.
"I can't tell you how many employers are calling me and saying, 'We haven't done anything with pay for at least three to five years. I need to make sure we're still competitive,' " said Nancy Kasmar, manager of compensation and benefits consulting at Washington Employers, a human-resources organization with more than 1,000 member businesses.
"They have to start working on the employee value proposition."
Kasmar said retention requires not only a competitive salary and benefits but also an array of nonfinancial strategies, including career-advancement opportunities, work-life balance and recognition from managers.
The economic recovery also is prompting some employers to step up their efforts to engage employees or risk losing the best ones to other companies.
"We've seen a significant uptick in the last 18 to 24 months in organizations talking about employee engagement, leadership development and more effective communication around career pathing," said Brandon Cherry, who runs the San Francisco office of management consulting firm Hay Group.
A Gallup survey recently found that only three of 10 Americans were engaged at work, while 50 percent were "just kind of present" and 20 percent were actively disengaged or miserable.
Gallup noted that workers in still-struggling sectors faced fewer opportunities and may be holding onto their jobs out of necessity rather than choice.
The millennial generation was more engaged than other age groups in the workplace, but they also were the most likely to say they'll quit in the next year if the job market improves.
As hiring picks up, labor activists are raising concerns that low- and mid-skill workers have seen their living standards eroded amid paltry wage growth.
Recently, some workers at fast-food restaurants across the country walked off the job to demand a $15-an-hour "living wage."
The Economic Policy Institute of Washington, D.C., recently released a report showing that between 2007 and 2012, real wages declined for all but the top 30 percent of earners nationwide, despite continued productivity growth.
Marilyn Watkins, policy director at the Seattle nonprofit Economic Opportunity Institute, sees firsthand the pay gap among workers with different skills. Four years ago, her son graduated college with a computer-science degree and instantly began making more money than she did.
"He's very employable, with vast amounts of discretionary income," Watkins said. "But there's a lot of 20-somethings who still live at home, can't afford to move out and are working part-time jobs."
She added that when her nonprofit has internship job openings, it's inundated with applications from people who graduated from college several years ago.
At WhitePages.com, an online directory-assistance service, staff vacations, free dinners and Fridays off during the summer are just some of the perks it offers its employees to keep them excited about work, said chief financial officer Jason Eglit.
The company also is spending about $2 million to spruce up its downtown Seattle offices, including the addition of a whiskey bar and kegerator (a special refrigerator for draft beer). And to attract new hires, particularly software engineers, it pays its summer interns $40 an hour.