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Check out the most popularly asked questions below. If you need clarification or a have a different question, 
email Dr. Bob directly at bob@drbobnelson.com.

 

Top 10 Rewards & Recognition Questions

1.  If you recognize one person, are you NOT recognizing everyone else?  That is, what do you do about the employees who feel left out?

Whenever someone in your organization is upset about someone else being recognized (and not him- or herself), this should be a red flag that you are not doing enough recognition. When recognition is a scarce commodity, people have a tendency to want to cling to it and, for that matter, keep in the spotlight as long as possible because they are never sure when it will come around again. Leaving employees out does not tend to be a problem in organizations that have developed a strong recognition culture, that have a variety of formal and informal programs and tools, and where managers place an emphasis on daily recognition practices and behaviors.

As a start toward moving toward such an “abundance” mentality, revamp your recognition activities and programs to avoid a single “winner” or quota. Instead, create opportunities for everyone to be potential winners, such as having an honor roll for those employees who have all practiced a key value or set of behaviors of the organization within a given time period, instead of an employee-of-the-month program, which honors a single recipient. Also, remember, if some of the best forms of recognition tend to have little if any cost (e.g., verbal and written praise, public praise, symbolic gestures by managers, pass around awards, etc.), there is absolutely no reason not to do more of these activities in a timely, sincere, and personal way!

2.  Our managers know they should recognize their employees, but they feel they’re too busy to do so.  What can we do?

I’ve found that making recognition happen is iterative, so try to build on and expand from your successes. Discuss with the managers the increasing problem of attracting and retaining employees, the hidden costs, the loss of productivity and competitiveness. Show the demographics and what your competition is doing. Relate the issue to the bottom line. You can’t force managers to recognize their employees, but you can make a persuasive case for why they should want to do so. Remember too that “time” can be an excuse. In my doctoral research, I found that high-use recognition managers actually valued recognition in part because it can be well done with very little time.

3.  If you praise employees, won’t it be more difficult to discipline them when necessary?

If you are specific about what you are praising the person for, this is less of a problem. Generic praise such as “You’re one of my best employees” can be misleading to the employee because it seems to indicate little, if any, need for improvement. You can leverage those things the individual is good at as evidence that he or she can improve in other areas of the job, for example, “Gary, I know you can make these new changes we’ve discussed, because I’ve seen how well you handle assignments that you put your mind to.” As the person makes improvements, be sure to notice and acknowledge those improvements. This will be one of the best ways to assure that the improved performance continues.  When you discipline someone, you have to make sure that the person feels you are on his or her side. If someone is on a performance improvement plan, it is essential that you notice when the person has made improvement of any type to start to build the positive momentum toward enhanced performance. Typically, doing so will make the employee’s progress easier and show that you are in it together.

4.  My company does a lot to recognize their employees, but employees report they don’t receive much recognition.  What’s going on?

Many organizations confuse lots of employee activities with equating to lots of recognition – it’s not.  The type of activities you referenced falls into a narrow band on the recognition spectrum.  Such activities may help morale and social interaction among employees, but tend not to make any individual employee feel special.  The best recognition singles individuals or groups out for extraordinary performance.  It is contingency based upon those things that make the biggest difference to the group’s mutual success.  If people don’t appreciate those things you are doing, you need to consider doing things they do value more.

5.  How can we get top management to support recognition activities?

Different people are persuaded differently. The best advice I have is to think of other times when your manager has been persuaded (to purchase equipment, approve a policy exception, hire a person, etc.) and what served to convince her (data, cost/benefit, urgency of the problem, competitor doing it, personal appeal). Now mimic what worked!

6.  Our recognition programs are feeling stale.  How can we reenergize them?

Any recognition program or activity can get old and lose energy, especially over a number of years. Do a focus group or find a way to collect information about why people do not use the existing program. Include the biggest cynics on the review team to gain their feedback. It may be that the program just needs to be relaunched to remind people of its existence and new incentives need to be established. Or, you may discover that the program has run its course and it would be better to do something new and exciting.

7.  We hold recognition events that a lot of employees—even ones receiving the awards—do not attend. How can we get them to come to these events?

If you throw a party and no one comes, was it really a party?  don’t want to seem flip about it, but my guess is the events you are referring to have lost their pizzazz and don’t do much for those who are invited to attend. You need to host recognition events that create a buzz with employees, where fun things happen! Build anticipation: announce that upper management will be serving the refreshments, list door prizes that will be given for attendance, hire a standup comedian — that type of thing. Another possibility is your choice of time and venue. I worked with a hospital recently that held all recognition events during off hours so that employees had to stay an extra hour or two after what was usually already a long shift or even forced overtime. Talk about excitement! For employees who feel overworked and stressed, their preference for being thanked is to allow them to go home to their families. The last thing on their minds is “How can I spend more of my limited free time at work.

8.  Can too much recognition lead to constantly escalating forms of recognition or unfulfilled expectations on the part of employees?

Hey, no one promised you a rose garden! Employee motivation today is a moving target. You’ve got to be in constant contact with your employees to determine what they most value and then find ways to systematically act on those desired forms of recognition and rewards as they perform well. Yes, you need to vary your forms of recognition, adding new things, experimenting, and so forth, but you can also stop doing other things that have run their course and are no longer very motivating to employees. The alternative is that if you keep doing the same things year after year, you’ll likely end up with a very boring place to work. Variety is the spice of life and as you try new things—especially things your employees are interested in—your rewards will be higher morale, productivity, performance, and retention. Certainly that should provide some motivation for you to stay the course! p.s.: The one form of recognition that never seems to get old is effective praise. If you are timely, sincere, and specific in thanking employees when they have done good work, this form of recognition tends to never get old.

9.  What’s the best way to really get employees involved in the decision-making process and get them invested in the process, that is, motivated to perform for the good of all?

Without a doubt, the best decision making involves those people who are expected to implement the decisions being made! Ask their opinions, involve them in a discussion, or give them the authority to handle the situation as best they can. This is highly motivating for most people, and of course reaching goals they’ve set helps keep people going. As you give people responsibility, they are bound to act more responsibly!”

10. What is the best way to make recognition become part of an organization’s culture?

 One step at a time. Create a motivation baseline and move in the desired direction a step at a time. Start small and build on your success. Ask, “Who wants to help?” and run with those individuals who see the need and are positive about the change. Build momentum, which can become a critical mass and lead to a quantum leap in which every manager in your operation one day knows the value of recognition and acts on it as a matter of course in his or her daily behavioral repertoire with employees.

Creating a recognition culture is a messy, nonlinear process that involves taking time to assess what employees feel could most make a difference and then taking that feedback seriously in making change happen in the organization. Start with those employees who have the most energy for improving the level of recognition and build on your successes, learning along the way. Training is an important part of raising awareness about the need to recognize employees systematically in meaningful ways, helping managers develop the skills they need to recognize others well, and setting the expectation of all managers that they need to make recognition a priority in their jobs. Regarding managers’ performance evaluations, their ability to manage and motivate staff should be an integral part of how they are evaluated in their jobs; otherwise, the activity is not likely to be taken seriously.

 

More Frequently Asked Questions

 

  • How do you counteract a salary system that forces managers to rank employees and only grant a few as exceptional with corresponding higher raises?

Companies often force a quota system on their managers when they’ve given up trusting their managers’ ability to be objective. No manager wants to give a poor review and risk an employee not receiving a raise he or she expected. Unfortunately, this means that managers are also willing to–and do–give employees good and even excellent performance reviews when the employee’s performance may be average or even below average. (Worse yet is to promote a poor performer in the hopes that person will be moved to someone else’s area!) I worked with one large insurance company recently that had 85 percent of their employees rated as being “excellent” — the highest rating.

Whereas it may be true that many employees were exceptional, why was the company experiencing a 12 percent loss of market share?  This is an obvious disconnect between goals and rewards and one predictable response is to force the evaluations to be spread evenly over a bell-curve. If you are forced to use such a ranking system, you should explain the intent of the system (not blame upper management or human resources!) to your employees, do your best to evaluate each employee fairly and objectively and then work with those employees who were not ranked as “excellent” to show them how they could be in the future. Of course, such a situation increases the need and importance of using non-monetary recognition to make all employees feel appreciated when they do good work.

  • How do you balance individual praise and recognition when there are performance issues? How do you encourage someone to improve, yet not send confusing signals?

If you are specific about what you are praising the person for, this is less of a problem. Generic praise such as “You’re one of my best employees” can be misleading to the employee because it seems to indicate little, if any, need for improvement. You can leverage those things the individual is good at as evidence that he or she can improve in other areas of the job, for example, “Gary, I know you can make these new changes we’ve discussed, because I’ve seen how well you handle assignments that you put your mind to.” As the person makes improvements, be sure to notice and acknowledge those improvements. This will be one of the best ways to assure that the improved performance continues.

  • How do you motivate the employees you are addressing for poor performance or once you have given a very substandard review to the person?

When you discipline someone, you have to make sure that the person feels you are on his or her side. If someone is on a performance improvement plan, it is essential that you notice when the person has made improvement of any type to start to build the positive momentum toward enhanced performance. Typically, doing so will make the employee’s progress easier and show that you are in it together.

  • As a manager, how can you best lead when morale is low and everyone is feeling stressed, on edge, and anxious?

What we know from extensive leadership research is that the best managers are ones that are positive and forward-looking. At no time is this more critical than during times of crisis. If your group is on edge, they will look to you for both direction as well assurances that things will get better. You need to model the behavior you want your staff to emulate. You need to show confidence in them, yourself, and your circumstances that things will improve and that your actions and strategies will prevail. And if you have doubts, keep those feelings to yourself and from your group in that they will serve little useful value to either you or them.

 

Even More Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you get your supervisors to buy into and support recognition of employees?

If just one person you are trying to convince, I’d show them the power of recognition through your actions, that is, the immediate impact of the recognition you use on morale and the end results you are trying to attain.  You might also consider recognizing your supervisor when they’ve done a good job so they can feel the impact of recognition first-hand.  You also can create a role for your supervisor to look good doing recognition.  Invite him or her to present some awards or to join a group celebration, mingle with your group, and take some questions from the staff.

  • What recommendations do you have for an organization to change their culture to one that is effective in recognizing contributions, large and small—i.e., management ‘buy-in’?

There are a lot of strategies that can be used to help change a company to have a stronger recognition culture.  My bias is to get managers to start in their immediate sphere of influence to make a difference – first in the manager’s own attitude and behaviors and then in the actions and activities of their group.  Recognition does not need to start with upper management, but at some point they need to get on board and support the activity.  What would be persuasive to management?  What has worked with other successful initiatives?  Could you do a pilot program to demonstrate the impact of recognition? What is the competition doing?  There is no one technique that can guarantee a recognition culture, but multiple approaches will get you there faster.

  • What does it mean when employees consistently ask for money as a reward?  This is exemplified by informal surveys, employees choosing cash instead of merchandise for service recognition, and unsolicited comments on requesting money in place of parties, luncheons, etc.

Money is a definite motivator, so it comes as no surprise that employees would ask for it.  However, if that is all they ever ask for, you might have a different situation going on.  I’ve seen some organizations in which money has become the only motivator, that is, money was used to thank someone, included as a choice for recognition, and so forth to the point in which employees viewed it as the accepted form of recognition in the company.  Recognition is different than money and needs to be used in addition to it in all organizations.  As Rosebeth Moss Kanter says, “Compensation is a right; recognition is a gift!”

  • Can the leader of a small organization praise employees too much? 

Almost any incentive can be overused, and most lose some effectiveness with extended use.  Praise – when it is sincere, specific and timely – may be an exception to this rule.  If a manager praises arbitrarily and/or mechanically, however, it can very quickly become trite and even manipulative.  Likewise, if a manager only uses praise it may come to lose meaning as well and thus should be combined or varied with other forms of recognition.

  • We have two facilities with the same managers over both.  In one facility the employees are willing to help and caring; in the other it is the opposite.  How can we change the atmosphere in the second facility?

Start sharing information and practices between the two facilities.  What exactly does the one facility have going for it that the other doesn’t?  Are their key people who help perpetuate the attitude and practice of recognition?  If so, what specifically do they do and can those in the other facility replicate that?  Perhaps start a recognition task force made up of members of both facilities so they can share experiences more specifically.

  • It seems the more we do for our employees the more they expect.  They are not appreciative of the numerous ways we try to show them we care.  We host activities, a picnic, Las Vegas Night, whirly ball, bowling, Euchre nights, golf outings, etc., and it’s always the same participants.  Most employees response is something like “I spend 40 to 60 hours a week with these people, so why would I want to spend my free time with them?”

Many organizations confuse lots of employee activities with equating to lots of recognition – it’s not.  The type of activities you referenced falls into a narrow band on the recognition spectrum.  Such activities may help morale and social interaction among employees, but tend not to make any individual employee feel special.  The best recognition singles individuals or groups out for extraordinary performance.  It is contingency based upon those things that make the biggest difference to the group’s mutual success.  If people don’t appreciate those things you are doing, you need to consider doing things they do value more.

 

CONVINCING MANAGEMENT

  • We currently leave reward and recognition to the manager’s discretion, but feel that this is ineffective. How can we convince the leadership team of the value and ROI to be gained from implementing a custom R&R program?

You will be able to demonstrate the value best if you link the programs directly to desired performance in one’s job, department, or organization. Start with the end in mind in terms of the impact on desired results, and when these results occur the credibility of your recognition programs will be enhanced. For example, Sears Roebuck was recently able to link recognition to employee satisfaction and further found that a 5 percent improvement in employee satisfaction led to a 3 percent improvement in customer satisfaction and a 1 percent improvement to the organization’s bottom line.

  • I am taking a public relations course and my assignment is to determine how business results can be achieved through both formal and informal employee recognition programs. Then my CEO will determine whether to implement such a program. I see a lot about how to recognize, but little of the cost savings or increased profits from doing so. Can you help me?

Numerous examples of bottom-line benefits are provided in my books, such as 1001 Ways to Reward Employees and 1001 Ways to Energize Employees, and in Motivating Today’s Employees (Successories). For example, an Amoco plant attributed savings of $18.8 million in two years to various gift programs and contests; American Express increased net income 500 percent in 11 years with an ROI (return on investment) of 28 percent through an innovative recognition program; and WordPerfect Corporation was able to double services in a year through an overall employee challenge and subsequent reward offering by upper management.

  • For over eight months I have been compiling information about the necessity of keeping employees informed and motivated. I have been able to convince my superiors that it’s time to address employee concerns, but I still need to convince the company owners. I’m afraid my company will start to lose its best people because of low morale. How should I go about it?

You may want to meet owners and upper management on their terms, not yours. That is, show how recognition will positively impact whatever goals—including financial—are important to them. Develop a motivation baseline for your employees and quantify and prioritize what they rank as important in order to be able to better do their jobs and be more satisfied in the process. Show owners what the competition is doing. Have a pilot study in one department or division and capture the impact of recognition programs on employee morale and productivity through pre- and post-tests of existing work measures.

  • Our company is planning on rolling out training to managers on how to implement informal rewards. We are also planning to develop a formal policy on rewards that is consistent company-wide. Are there any sample policies we could use? How can we best sell this to the managers?

Any training should be in conjunction with the programs and policies you establish. Many  prototypes are available, but it would be best if you developed the programs within your own company. The process will create buy-in and commitment, rather than a feeling of having something imposed on them.

 

CONVINCING OTHERS OF THE VALUE OF RECOGNITION PROGRAMS

  • We have a problem with employee turnover with our plant workers. I would like to start using some of your ideas, but I’m not sure how to convince my boss. How can I motivate up?

Different people are persuaded differently. The best advice I have is to think of other times when your manager has been persuaded (to purchase equipment, approve a policy exception, hire a person, etc.) and what served to convince her (data, cost/benefit, urgency of the problem, competitor doing it, personal appeal). Now mimic what worked!

  • The last two employers I have worked for have severely limited themselves by not valuing employees. An organization would never spend thousands of dollars on a piece of machinery and then not maintain it, but that’s what they do with their employees! I hope people will take your advice and invest in the people who literally “spend” their lives working for them!

At IBM they refer to hiring as “the million-dollar decision” because they calculate that’s the average of what will be spent on each employee who joins the organization. “Employees are our most important asset” is a statement found in most every annual report, but your people will never believe it to be true if you don’t show them on a daily basis!

  • In one business I’ve worked with, the employees came up with a list of things that motivated them (free dry cleaning, leasing a BMW, oil changes, weekends away, and so on. The owner took part in creating both team and individual rewards, but now has “no time” to implement anything that’s been discussed.

If the owner is too busy to lead the efforts and doesn’t have time to keep commitments he made, no one’s behavior is going to change for the better. Consider having the employees run the recognition effort themselves, perhaps as a revolving responsibility for a week or month at a time. By sharing the work, it spreads out the work and gives a great sense of ownership and commitment to people as their ideas are used. Ideally, those on top of the organization would be involved, but if they are not, don’t let it discourage you from acknowledging those who are doing good work.

  • A few years ago, after a survey indicated that employees felt unrecognized by their managers, I put together some recognition items such as thank-you cards and offered training to all employees in how to use them. Unfortunately, the managers and supervisors didn’t attend because they were “too busy.” They also seldom used the items available to recognize their employees. How can I get managers involved in this process?

First, congratulations on the initiative you’ve shown. I’ve found that making recognition happen is iterative, so try to build on and expand from your successes. Discuss with the managers the increasing problem of attracting and retaining employees, the hidden costs, the loss of productivity and competitiveness. Show the demographics and what your competition is doing. Relate the issue to the bottom line. You can’t force managers to recognize their employees, but you can make a persuasive case for why they should want to do so. Remember too that “time” can be an excuse. In my doctoral research, I found that high-use recognition managers actually valued recognition in part because it can be well done with very little time.

  • I manage eight people in an accounting department with a fun and rewarding atmosphere. I’ve been know to do a cartwheel when we do something extraordinary. My question is how to get my boss, the CEO, to recognize the value of recognition and encouragement. He and I have discussed this and he thinks employees are hired and paid to do well, and that’s enough. But I feel that this attitude short-changes the management staff. He’s very busy and has very little discretionary time to give out rewards or encouragement.

Your situation is challenging. I’ve found while doing some research recently that one of the significant reasons why managers provide recognition to others is that they receive it from their employees. You might try systematically using praise and recognition going up as a means to help him understand how it feels. This may make him more likely to at least support the efforts of others. Upper managers are persuaded differently, so you need to invest some effort to find the best “buttons” to push to persuade them.

 

HOW TO INSPIRE UNDERACHIEVERS

  •  I’m the manager of an independent video store with only five part-time employees. Two are wonderful at everything and always go above and beyond the call of duty, whereas the others do what’s expected only. How can I set up a program to reward the exemplary without hurting the others?

Your concern is a common one, but it is important to focus on recognizing the behavior and performance you want more of from your staff. This may bother those whose performance is average or worse, but you can help them to see that they too will be recognized as their performance improves. Set up the goals you want to meet to help your business succeed. Let everyone have a fair chance to perform against those goals and reward people for attaining them. Another way you can recognize all your employees, independent of specific goals, is to acknowledge each person for something you value or that he or she has done well, either in a group or individually.

 

SUPPORT STAFF

  •  I am having the most difficult time putting together a recognition program for our support staff. The group consists of five administrative and ten sales support employees. They have various roles and responsibilities and are rarely recognized for all that they do. This creates an issue, as the support people are why the sales staff is so successful. Any suggestions?

Bring your support employees together and ask them ways they’d like to be recognized. You can prime the discussion with some examples from other companies or even create a list of activities or items that the group members can rank or vote on. Also consider discussing recognition opportunities with the sales staff and what they might like to do to reward exceptional support. The sales reps who receive assistance and support are in a key position to notice and act on good work—and many of them will enjoy being able to “pay back” the dedication they receive from support staff.

 

POLICIES

  •  Our company has a “traditional” award system in place (service pins, etc.), and we are planning to roll out training to our managers and supervisors about how they can implement informal rewards in their departments. We are also planning on developing a formalized policy on award systems to remain consistent company-wide. This would define the differences between rewards, awards, incentives, etc., and outline the procedures for each. Do you have any sample policies we could use as a guide or any suggestions?

Your training program should be in conjunction with, not separate from, your rewards program. There are many prototypes you can use, but it would be best to develop your policies specifically for your company with input from the people who work there. Not only will this fit your objectives better, but you will create buy-in and commitment to the final programs from the process.

 

GETTING STARTED

  •  Our company only has 35 employees and has always felt that paying very good salaries was good enough. I would really like to start some sort of employee recognition program. Do you have any suggestions? We are an accounting software manufacturer, with tech support, salespeople, programming staff, and administrative people.

Few employees work only for money, and although money is a motivator, it clearly is not the only one for most individuals—and not even the top for many people. Recognizing this fact—and helping your management to recognize it as well—is an important first step in starting a recognition program. I can think of several thousand suggestions. Pick up my book, 1501 Ways to Reward Employees, or visit my website for many ideas and free downloads of articles, as well as links to other resources on the web. 

  • I’m a member of a steering committee for a health care system with 13 hospitals and approximately 13,000 employees; we have been assigned to promote, implement, and educate a new recognition/reward program at one of the hospitals, which employs about 3,000 people. I am deeply committed, but the challenge is to enroll my peers. We definitely need training for all front-line supervisors and managers. We want to find a way to incorporate recognition into managers’ performance evaluations.

Creating a recognition culture is a messy, nonlinear process that involves taking time to assess what employees feel could most make a difference and then taking that feedback seriously in making change happen in the organization. Start with those employees who have the most energy for improving the level of recognition and build on your successes, learning along the way. Training is an important part of raising awareness about the need to recognize employees systematically in meaningful ways, helping managers develop the skills they need to recognize others well, and setting the expectation of all managers that they need to make recognition a priority in their jobs. Regarding managers’ performance evaluations, their ability to manage and motivate staff should be an integral part of how they are evaluated in their jobs; otherwise, the activity is not likely to be taken seriously.

 

BIG TURNOVER

  • I’ve recently taken on the role of admitting supervisor at our hospital. The department has an 80 percent turnover rate! The problem had been diagnosed as stemming from stressful conditions and low pay, but I interviewed some employees who say they have no recognition for their hard work and feel extremely unappreciated. I want to start a recognition program right away, but feel a bit overwhelmed by the task, as I’ve found that senior management is seen as inaccessible and also seen as fearing change. Unfortunately, we’ve also just merged with another hospital, so everyone is nervous about job security and learning new systems. Do you have any suggestions specific to the health care environment?

There is a fine line between stress and excitement (see my column on page 5) and—as you’ve indicated—it’s often the simple considerations that make the work environment lean toward being a positive place to work. You should start something right away! Small changes can have an immediate impact and give you momentum, and if you wait until you could create the perfect program, it may never be implemented. It’s okay not to do recognition perfectly.

 

LOW MORALE

  • I work for a developmental services agency that provides day and residential services for developmentally challenged people. We are looking for a way to reward staff who have been here for several years for doing a great job. They need to be pumped up to do what they do on a daily basis! Our agency is, of course, financially limited, and on the front lines of providing services to the public. Thanks for any help you can give.

It’s easy to notice great performers in any work environment—more easily than steady, dependable workers. Yet, recognizing the day-to-day, behind-the-scenes performers is important as well. Brainstorm some options with the group, and try the ideas that create the most energy. I’m convinced the best things you can do are things that cost little or no money, but they need to be fun and fresh.

  • We do a lot of things for people at Children’s, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. For example, we recently scored low on an employee survey question about whether they have been recognized by a manager within the past week. What can we do to improve those particular scores?

Just because you are doing things for all employees on a broad basis does not mean that you are making individual employees feel recognized. Recognition is in the eyes of the recipient! In fact, many employees do not feel organizational forms of thanks (such as a benefit or celebration, for example) are anything special, precisely because everyone is getting those things. To make each employee feel recognized, you have to connect with each person—and know what items or activities make the person feel valued. Of course, some things are always important: a sincere, timely praise for a job well done, for example, is almost universally important to everyone.

 

CLEAR CRITERIA

  • I’m an HR consultant and have been working with a client to develop a better reward system than they currently have in place. They now take nominations and a committee determines who “wins.” I’ve participated in some of the committee’s decisions, and it’s mostly not very clear who the winner is. We would like to find a way to reward as many people as possible without making it meaningless, as we reasoned that if only a couple people can win it’s not very motivating. We ended up rewarding about 70 people, both individually and in teams, and everyone seemed to love that idea at the awards ceremony. We topped it off with a barbecue and games. What’s your opinion?

My bias is to start with a clear focus on desired behavior or performance—the short list (strategic objectives, company values, etc.) that will obtain the best results if you make it happen. Establish a clear criteria with employees that will indicate observable success on these dimensions that any person could achieve. Find ways to acknowledge that behavior when it occurs—ideally, on a daily basis, not once a month, quarter, or year. You can have much more impact with multiple low-cost forms of recognition that occur on an ongoing basis rather than a single, huge, year-end celebration of recognition.

 

EXPECTATIONS FOR REWARDS

  • I work for a company as manager of a department store, and every year we give rewards to employees up to 100 percent of their salaries. This year we won’t be able to give out any rewards because sales were down. I’m afraid people will be unmotivated for this coming year.

What an unpleasant situation! If the money was previously given as a generous, unilateral gift of the owners, it could easily have set the tone that employees are “entitled” to such largesse. If the money was previously given based on the organization’s performance, you have a better chance of justifying the missing financial bonus, and focusing on the future opportunity for employees to receive the incentive in the next year. I’d have a talk with everyone about what you all learned this last year and how the situation could be turned around in the future. Separate morale issues, such as celebrating over the holidays, from the expected financial bonus/incentive. At a holiday pot-luck luncheon, you could give each person a nominal cash amount and let them go shopping for an hour to buy something for themselves. It becomes a type of team building if they go together in small groups. Have them return and share what they purchased and why. It may not be in the same category as 100 percent salary bonuses, but it can still serve as a fun, team-building experience.

 

BEING CONSISTENT ACROSS DIVISIONS

  • We develop business intelligence software and currently have over 1,700 employees worldwide and are growing at a fast pace. Our problem is that we have acquired so many other businesses that we don’t know how to handle awards for length of service. This is quite an emotional issue among people who have been with Cognos and feel slighted when someone acquired from another company is recognized first.

Ask those who are directly affected for their thoughts on this issue. You could pull together a focus group of employees from each part of the organization to brainstorm alternatives and make a recommendation. I’d give credit to years worked in any business that was acquired, but strive to not have this program be the cornerstone of your overall recognition efforts. I might suggest making the award less coveted at an organizational level, but allowing individuals at the local level to acknowledge and celebrate the achievement with the people being honored in a form of their choice. Also make sure the bulk of recognition efforts is focused on performance and not on longevity. Years of service awards are important to acknowledge, but performance now is even more important to recognize. If years of service is the primary or only way employees in your company are recognized, you are actually recognizing past endurance over current performance and contribution—a big mistake if you want everyone to strive for exceptional performance now.

 

GETTING EMPLOYEES INVOLVED

  • What’s the best way to really get employees involved in the decision-making process and get them invested in the process, that is, motivated to perform for the good of all?

Without a doubt, the best decision making involves those people who are expected to implement the decisions being made! Ask their opinions, involve them in a discussion, or give them the authority to handle the situation as best they can. This is highly motivating for most people, and of course reaching goals they’ve set helps keep people going. As you give people responsibility, they are bound to act more responsibly!

 

SALES INCENTIVES

  • We are setting up an incentive program for our sales reps that would include rewards of frequent flyer miles or free travel. I’ve been looking everywhere for information on this type of program.

You might want to use an incentive vendor instead of finding someone on your own. Incentive providers are located in most markets; see the appendices of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees for a broad spectrum of incentive providers.

 

INCENTIVIZING

  • I work for an ad agency with about 85 employees. Our issue is reporting time. About 30 percent of the staff doesn’t record their time in a timely fashion, so we can’t pull up current cost-to-date reports. It slows down our billing cycle, and even a few days’ delay costs us big money. Of course, reports are not as accurate because people try to catch up all at once and cannot remember what they did on any particular day. Even worse, the executives are among the worst offenders. How can I turn this situation around?

Appeal to your executives to “walk the talk. Once they are modeling this administrative task, find ways to notice employees for turning in accurate and timely reports. At the same time, go to a few of the worst offenders and ask them what they need to get their information in on time. Try whatever they suggest, which will increase their commitment. Then set weekly (or even daily) deadlines that everyone must meet. Use the simplest possible reporting form, whether on-line or on paper. Assign someone to follow up with everyone and then post names (like an honor roll) of people who met the deadlines. Hold some type of celebration the first time everyone’s information is in on time. The point is to make a big thing out of even the little behavior you want to see repeated.

  • We have a wide variety of employees, from engineers to truck drivers, clerks to supervisors. In addition to base pay, salaried employees are given bonuses based on position and profit level. Our committee agreed on an incentive plan, but we don’t know whether to apply the discretionary portion to the regular bonus for salaried personnel and how to decide how much. We review each employee against pre-set goals at the beginning of each year and set new goals, but if we pre-set a bonus amount, where’s the incentive? And how can managers review one another for determining bonus amounts?

Keep your cash bonus plan simple and relevant to the desired performance. Have objective criteria that are announced in advance and that all employees have an equal chance of achieving.  Increase the frequency of the bonuses so that people can see better how they impact the amount of money they receive. You could also consider a portion to reward team achievements, as well as individual ones. Many companies are going to evaluations from a cross-section of people. AAA, for example, has employees rate managers; W.L. Gore has associates rank other associates they work with. Employees tend to work together better when they know they can impact each other’s compensation. Of course, don’t overlook the value of nonmonetary recognition as you make changes.

  • I handle the training and recruitment of employees for a new direct selling company. I have introduced a program called “Zero Complaints” with the objective to decrease complaints. The program is going well except for an ad hoc committee made up of people who are in some way on the fringes of the real purpose of the company and not enthusiastic nor interested in what the company could accomplish. How can I create enthusiasm within this ad hoc team and help them become committed to our goals?

If this committee is a group of employees working for you, and it’s not doing well, disband it and start again. If it’s made up of volunteers, find some new ones or hand select some participants. Try an off-site team-building session to help focus the group. If this doesn’t work, have them meet less often, say only quarterly, and have the real work done by subgroups with a member or two from the ad hoc group and other high performers within the organization. In other words, rely on the people you know will do the work you expect and let their enthusiasm and commitment carry the team.

WHAT TYPE OF PROGRAM IS BEST

  • We have an employee program called Achieving Customer Commitment Excellence that rewards employees based on a nomination from peers or management regarding their excellent service to customers. The program has three levels: $100, $1,000, and a cruise. We also reward our salespeople through a different program. The company wants to merge the two programs, and I don’t want to throw away what’s good with each of them by combining programs.

My bias would be to expand to more programs rather than to merge everything into one program. Sales and administrative functions are typically motivated quite differently from one another. Their skills, the demands of the job, and compensation are all different. It’s difficult to use “one reward fits all,” even if it’s easier to administer. The more you treat employees as though they are the same, the greater the chance that you’ll become a mediocre culture and alienate those you’re most trying to motivate.

  • You say a centrally located program is doomed to failure. My experience is that decentralized programs fail due to employee dissatisfaction because others “have more fun,” “have better treatment,” “spent more money,” “have a nicer jacket,” etc. How do other companies deal with this?

“Doomed to failure” might have been a bit strong, but I do believe motivation is a very personal issue that best occurs between employees and those they hold in high esteem, starting with their managers. It’s a function of the interactions, trust, support, and respect that you receive on a daily basis, more so than from an occasional corporate award, performance review, or holiday party. “Recognition inequity” diminishes as you allow a greater quantity and variety of recognition activities. If employees like what they heard another department did or received,  duplicate that success! Soon employees can come to appreciate the success of others, knowing they’ll be recognized when they too achieve.

 

TAX IMPLICATIONS

  • We will be rolling out a recognition system in the near future. Our accounting department just informed us that gifts valued over $25 are taxable. It seems that something so easy and beneficial has been turned into something difficult. What do other companies do to get around this issue?

Some companies use play money that is given to someone and then turned into payroll and added to the paycheck, less taxes on anything over $25. Of course, you can still do a lot under $25, such as group activities and celebrations—fun stuff. Be creative and pretend you don’t have a budget. You may surprise yourself. 

  • Our recognition program, in place about 18 months, has three tiers: an informal program with verbal and written thanks from managers or peers; a departmental/team program initiated by management and performance based, with lunch, gift certificates, or token rewards; and a formal program with nominations submitted to a committee quarterly and an evening event to recognize winners, who receive debit cards and a traveling trophy. I want to know about tax implications, but I also have two other questions:
  1. The number of nonexempt employees nominated and selected for the formal program is much lower than we would expect because managers tend to see production workers as doing their jobs, whereas exempt workers have control of whole projects and can more easily go beyond expectations. What can we do to involve those in nonexempt roles?
  2. Another problem is that sometimes the nominations themselves are written in ways that just don’t sell the candidate. What can we do to be sure others know what is being rewarded?

What are the indicators of exceptional work in your production areas? Attendance, consistency, continuous improvement, suggestions, peer helpfulness, etc. Find ways to recognize those achievements. Perhaps seek both exempt and nonexempt nominations for the company-wide awards.  Have someone from the committee review all the nomination letters first, and if one is vague or unclear, interview the nominator to pull out why the nominee is exceptional. Another idea is to provide specific guidelines or even an outline on the nomination forms, including some examples and a list of adjectives or sample phrases.

  • 1. Is there a federal requirement to report rewards and recognition awards as taxable income? Does it include consumable food, such as gift certificates to restaurants?
  • 2. Do you know of any organizations that include temp and contractor employees in their recognition programs.
  • 3. The taxation requirement has limited our ability to be spontaneous when recognizing anyone. I’m looking for some suggestions.

[A big thank  you to Bill Sims, president of the Bill Sims Company (bill@billsims.com), for providing the following answers.]1.

1. The IRS has a teeny, weeny list of things you don’t have to tax. If it’s not on the list, you have to tax it! Gift certificates and cash are fully taxable. A “nominal” gift of $25 or less, given once a year, is not taxable. If an individual receives multiple awards, there is a tax consequence.

  1. Lots of companies reward their temporary help and independent contractors. Monies paid must be accompanied by a 1099 form.
  2. Here are some other specific ways to reward:

* Service Award Programs. At the end of each 5-year service period, you can give employees an average value of $400, with no one person     receiving more than $1,600.

* Safety Awards. Every year, 10 percent of employees can receive an average of $400 in value, with an upper limit of $1,600.

* De Minimis Fringe Awards. Usually this is interpreted as up to $25 in value, but the tax code speaks of “nominal value” and difficulty of administration if one tries to track the awards. It’s things like using the company copy machine.

— Cash awards and gift certificates are specifically excluded from these provisions. You must award a “tangible piece of personal property.”

— Under $4.00 cost of awards bearing your logo. Award as many as you want, but people may not want another mug!

 

REVIVING AN OLD RECOGNITION PROGRAM

  • I’m on a committee at work to give rewards,. So far, they consist of an “applause” card, “just a pat on the back,” and “bravo,” given out quarterly to over and above performance, for either teams or individuals. The committee chooses and gives both a plaque and a monetary reward, along with company exposure and recognition. Any person can fill out the nominations on the company’s intranet, so it’s not top-down. This program has been in place since 1994, and with all the company’s restructuring and more to come, not many people are participating any more. What do you suggest to perk up the program?

Any recognition program or activity can get old and lose energy, especially over a number of years. Do a focus group or find a way to collect information about why people do not use the existing program. Include the biggest cynics on the review team to gain their feedback. It may be that the program just needs to be relaunched to remind people of its existence and new incentives need to be established. Or, you may discover that the program has run its course and it would be better to do something new and exciting.

  • At our radio station, the employees recognize other employees themselves. We choose an employee of the month and an employee of the year. We do this with a “Buffalo Charge” [[asking her]] when someone goes above and beyond. Whoever has the most Buffalo Charges is employee of the month. The problem is that people are not as interested as they were and they don’t select people for going above and beyond. Can you point us in a new direction?

It’s difficult for any program–no matter how good–to last forever. It’s also difficult to meet all motivation needs with a single program. It sounds like the criterion for the recognition activity you mentioned has lost its focus. Start over in asking what behavior or performance you are trying to impact and brainstorm other ideas and incentives that would get people excited about achieving the desired results. It’s ok to retire your program and replace it with something new.

  • How do programs like the WOW cards at the Dolphin Hotel in Orlando work? How does anyone in HR or a newsletter editor know who received WOW cards to publicize it or put it in a personnel file? Also, how long should a program be kept and how would we know when a program has run its course?

In many programs like this the written praisings are submitted though a central recognition committee that keeps a copy, which might be published in a newsletter or posted on a bulletin board. Sometimes, memo pads are used that have a duplicate that goes to a person’s manager or to HR. For example, at BankBoston, Star Awards are sent to the recognition group with instructions for how to present the award. At the Dolphin Hotel, Captain WOW hands out awards in person.

On your other question, most recognition programs should be evaluated, say every 12 to 15 weeks. If people are still excited about the program and using it, it’s still viable.

 

ATTENDANCE

  • I have heard that Toyota and others have full-fledged attendance reward programs. Is that type of program effective? Has attendance increased? My feeling is that you do not want to have too much of a reward, as then sick people come to work and infect others and those with sick children at home feel demotivated when they are forced to miss work and can’t possibly win an award. I don’t want to set up a program and then find out that it doesn’t work!

There are some amazingly rich attendance reward programs, as attendance is critical in many companies. For example, Isuzu and Toyota both offer a lottery for those employees who have perfect attendance and give away six new cars each year. Lottery tickets (1 per year) are given to employees with perfect attendance (1 per year). I have heard that losers feel quite a bit of disappointment. However, 65 percent of Toyota employees in the U.S. have perfect attendance, many for as long as ten years in a row, so it seems to be working.

  • It burns me up that where I work there is no recognition whatsoever for perfect attendance, not even a thank you. It takes energy right out of a person when any company doesn’t recognize perfect attendance in today’s workplace. When you write a book called 1001 Ways to Discourage Employees, put that near the top of the list.

In today’s work environments, what with the increase of flexible working hours, part-time employees, and contracted workers, the notion of honoring perfect attendance might be a bit outdated. Still, it’s not that difficult to do: Creating an honor roll, giving out perfect attendance certificates, or hosting a lunch for perfect attendees with upper management are just a few ways recognition could be visibly done in this arena of performance.

  • I’m drafting a proposal for a perfect attendance award for our market and being met with resistance from our director’s staff, as they believe one’s check is the reward for perfect attendance. I did overcome their resistance and gain approval for $10,000 yearly, in addition to quarterly cash incentives. I want to have a pool, and everyone with perfect attendance would have a chance to win. We’re also wanting to become one of the Best Places in America to Work; what are some similarities among those places?

This is old-line management thinking at its most basic. In fact, it’s naive to think that a paycheck is the only thing needed to motivate employees to come to work every day. People today have too many choices and discretionary energy to expect them to do their best without being acknowledged for that effort. As far as giving a chance on such a large prize, it’s far better to do many smaller things than one tremendous one that only one person can win and that makes everyone else jealous. Spread out the money as much as possible and do not rely just on monetary incentives alone to encourage the desired behavior. The work environments of the “best places” are ones in which employees are trusted and respected–and in which employees have fun as well.

 

RETAIL SECTOR

  • I agree with what you’ve said that praise and recognition are very important, with money and perks a close second. I am working for a small company now, and did not get the money I thought I should have, but I’ve stayed on because I can work part-time flexible hours, travel only five miles to work, have paid vacation and holidays, a 401k plan, and the month of August off to be with my children. My boss is demanding, but always motivates and praises.

Your comments reinforce my belief that money is important, but certainly is not the only motivator and for most people is not even the top motivator at work.

  • Many suggestions you make seem like they’d be better in large companies. We have two full-time and three part-time employees, as well as a couple of family members. I think that a reward should not only shore up the confidence of the recipient but encourage others to do a better job. In a small place, this could seem like favoritism.

I have a small company myself. Given the flexibility and higher degree of interaction and visibility of management, you can do more than a large company does, for example, special assignments, lunch with the boss, fun certificates, celebration of milestones, training and growth opportunities, and so forth. Find out what interests your employees. Have a session in which everyone lists two or three things that motivate them. Although you can give rewards to increase morale, whenever possible, link the rewards to some kind of performance. The result will be increased performance and improved employee morale and satisfaction.

  • I own a reprographics company with 20 employees who work very hard and are dedicated. Most of the functions are performed by several people at a time. I stress teamwork more than anything else. I have several ways to reward teams, but due to having three shifts, I can’t present awards in front of everyone, which I know you strongly recommend.

Public recognition is in general powerful, but is by no means the only way to recognize your team. Turn the problem over to your shift employees and see what they would value the most and how they’d like to have everyone know about their accomplishments. Maybe photos of the high performers receiving their awards can be posted on a bulletin board, or a project scrapbook can be made. Do whatever seems to raise the most enthusiasm with employees you are trying to motivate.

  • I’m in the salon and spa business and have found employee turnover to be very high. Money has not been a major motivator for me, as I like to service customers and help them feel beautiful inside, and I’ve found that’s how most of my employees feel. Could you help me find ways to coach owners and managers in how to do positive reinforcement? I know that employee retention would surely increase with bosses who knew how to give daily (and hourly) pats on the back and appreciation.

First, lead by example in how you provide recognition and thanks to your owners and managers. Managers who receive recognition have an easier time passing it on to others. Second, get everyone involved in discussing and coming up with ideas of what types of recognition they’d most appreciate. Third, put tools in place that can help facilitate recognition on a daily basis: praising cards or notes, pass around trophies, gift certificates, bulletin boards, time in staff meetings, and so forth.

  • A lot of recognition ideas seem silly to my staff of younger employees at the store. How should I deal with that?

Although it’s true that no single idea will appeal to everyone, it is also true that everyone wants to feel valued and you need but discover what does it for them. Ask them what they’d prefer to do and try to use their ideas. If your ideas seem silly to them, what would they value! It might be increased flexibility or autonomy or permission to join a professional association or go on a team outing. There’s no limit to the possibilities! Also keep in mind that the more vocal cynics are likely the minority. Don’t let them undermine what the others in your store would appreciate.

  • How do you empower colleagues and/or employees to ask for and expect the praise they (secretly) need, but don’t always receive?

A lot of people have difficulty asking for what they want, which, unfortunately, puts the onus on others to act as mind readers. Deal with the subject in an open way, getting to know each individual and what he or she values in terms of recognition. You can also have a group discussion on the topic of recognition and have everyone bring two items that motivate each person. My staff recently did this, and one person had nothing to share, saying she couldn’t think of anything, but then the rest of the group started listing items and she ended up with the longest list of all!

  • We are currently going through a merger. What are the ways in which we can sustain our employees’ level of energy and motivation through the merger?

A lot of companies cut back the amount of recognition they do during times of stress and change such as the merger you mentioned. I believe, however, you should do the exact opposite and expand the amount and types of recognition you do to help keep everyone focused on the performance that is necessary to emerge successfully. And don’t forget that things like communication, involvement, and flexibility are huge motivators! Don’t have your employees read the latest developments in your organization in the newspaper; try to give people the best information you have when you have it—even though it may change.

  • What tips can you suggest to overcome early resistance to new motivational techniques, for example, if workers question the motives of management?

Tell people what you are up to. After all, the best management is what you do with people, not to them. By saying something like “I’m going to be trying to give more feedback when I see good work in our department. I know I haven’t done a lot of this in the past, and I’m not really comfortable with it, so let me know how I did if I give you such feedback.” If you come at it in a sincere way with the best interests of your employees at heart, people will not feel manipulated.

  • How does diversity play into recognition in the workplace? For instance, gender differences, cultural differences, or age differences in how people give or receive recognition?

Each of the factors you referenced has an impact on recognition, what works, people’s preferences and so forth. Ultimately, however, it comes down to an individual perspective as to what most motivates each person and their preferences for recognition.

  • What advice/recommendations do you have for an organization that is moving its 10,000+ employees from an annual COLA and standard 5 percent merit increases to a 0,3,5 or 7 percent pay for performance system?

Involve people in the process. Don’t take on too much at once. Don’t expect to make the change perfectly. Stop and access what’s going right and what’s going wrong along the way. Recognize and celebrate your successes and milestones in the change.

  • How do we accomplish the overwhelming task of making recognition an inherent part of our organization’s culture? That is, how can a handful of employees make such a major change among thousands?

One step at a time. Create a motivation baseline and move in the desired direction a step at a time. Start small and build on your success. Ask, “Who wants to help?” and run with those individuals who see the need and are positive about the change. Build momentum, which can become a critical mass and lead to a quantum leap in which every manager in your operation one day knows the value of recognition and acts on it as a matter of course in his or her daily behavioral repertoire with employees.

  • First, does daily, spontaneous, recognition interfere with formal performance evaluation process? My impulsive “thank you” may be encouraging behaviors that distract from larger organizational goals. And second, when we recognize a member of our team for his or her contribution, it has a positive effect. However, when higher management singles out an individual for recognition it creates hard feelings. Can individual recognition erode team effort?

Ideally, you should be thanking people about their behavior and performance that directly link to larger group and organizational goals. So, too, should the formal evaluation process be a rollup of the extensive feedback you should have provided along the way. Any other way and there will be a disconnect for employees between what you say is important and what you systematically reinforce through your behavior.

In the instance you reference, this certainly does seem to be the case. I know of many organizations, however, in which praise from top management does not create hard feelings. I feel that whenever people are negative about someone else being recognized, it’s a sure sign that there’s not enough recognition happening in that environment. When ample recognition exists, employees can be happy for each other’s successes, because they know their turn will come when they finish a project, delight a customers, submit a cost-saving idea, and so forth.

  • Because an individual has achieved in certain aspects of his or her job, does not necessarily indicate that he or she has satisfied the criteria for an extraordinary performance evaluation.  How can a manager ensure that an individual doesn’t confuse praise with a blanket assumption that his or her overall performance is satisfactory?
  • How do you balance individual praise and recognition when there are performance issues? How do you encourage someone to improve, yet not send confusing signals?

If you are specific about what you are praising the person for this is less of a problem. If fact, you can leverage those things the individual is good at as evidence that he or she can improve in other areas of the job. For example, “Gary, I know you can make these new changes we’ve discussed, because I’ve seen how well you handle assignments that you put your mind to.

  • What percentage of staff should I recognize? If I recognize a below average employee who happens to do one thing right, don’t I run the risk of sending the message that below average performance is acceptable?

What percentage of your staff should you recognize? Just the ones you want to keep! Recognize a below average employee only on those things he or she has improved on and you will slowly start to move the person to being average first, and then above average.

 

EDUCATION

  • Do you have any suggestions for energizing staff within the cultural constraints of a school environment? Perhaps other educators have also been looking for similar ideas.

I do hear from a lot of educators and school administrators. I try to look beyond the setting to the idea itself, rather than focus on what people can and cannot do because of size or type of organization. I’m convinced that the most powerful motivators are often things that cost little if anything and work in most environments. Consider involving people in decisions that affect them, mutual goal setting, allowing increased autonomy and flexibility, systematic manager-based and peer-based recognition, visibility for results, support when people make mistakes with a focus on the learning. Some specific rewards in an educational environment might be an opportunity to attend a conference of their choosing, special assignments, reading letters from parents at staff meetings, a pass-around award of some type, spotlighting teachers and staff in a community newspaper, access to you or the board, lunches or breakfasts, a suggestion box that you personally handle, and on and on.

  • I’ve been teaching for 11 years and am beginning to see issues related to what I believe is a lack of employee loyalty now, versus the old Fifties and Sixties mentality of the employer looked up to. What’s your viewpoint?

The topic of employee loyalty has shifted dramatically. I’m convinced that employees today are no longer loyal to organizations as much as they are loyal to others, especially to managers who treat them with trust and respect and systematically act in their best interests.

 

OTHER TOPICS 

  • We have over 12,000 employees in 35 states. I’m writing a proposal on replacing our current name badges, which are tied to years of service. Do you have any ideas or any information on using them for various types of recognition? Also, what are some other ways we could recognize years of service?

Much status can be built into a name tag. At Disney, for example, they use silver “Shining Star” tags to indicate that someone has been nominated for the distinction by a co-worker. Name tags can also be holders for other types of awards and distinctions, such as stars or pins. Many hotels, for example, list employees’ home towns, which is a good conversation starter with guests.

First check with your employees to see whether the tenure distinction is important to them or not, and what they might like to see to recognize years of service if not a different name tag. Often I find it’s more important how you do recognition more than what you do. Personally, I think it’s important for most employees to be recognized on their anniversary date by their manager. Anything more formal, such as a letter, should be hand delivered by the manager. The use of such things as pins or logo jewelry are less popular today, and one upcoming trend is providing a greater degree of choice in the gift that is offered.

  • We’re in the process of identifying two or three organizational goals that everyone can rally around. One area we believe has strategic importance and focuses on employees is “respect.” The notion of setting an organizational goal around respect for self, colleagues, students and vendors has potential, but we don’t know how to go about measuring changes.

Respect and trust may not be as abstract as you think. If you look at Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in America, there is a strong undercurrent of individual trust and respect at each one of these cultures. Gallop, for example, has recently reported a strong correlation of employee satisfaction with high responses on the question “my manager has recognized me for something I’ve done within the past week.” I advise you to try to determine what members of your organization would consider as indicators of respect in their environment with behavioral examples—and then systematically measuring those indicators with some check for periodic improvement.

  • I’m wondering what’s the best way to reward employees for academic achievement. Please note that most of our employees do not have offices, so anything to hang will be useless.

There are thousands of things you could do, but the best ones are probably those that are of perceived value to those who are receiving them. Talk to the people and use their ideas. Don’t overlook the most obvious, such as public praise, a personal note or certificate. Consider fun, crazy things as well,which work especially well when they involve the employees.

  • My 50-year-old educational service company is trying to introduce a “performance culture.” One possible strategy would be a 5-point rating system, and our senior officers believe that most people should receive a 3 most of the time. They think a 4 or 5 would only go to people who could “walk on water.” So when we do the mid-year reviews, we are going to be giving 3’s to a lot of professionals who don’t like being “average” and have been rated higher in the past. In fact, they are not doing things differently. How can we avoid morale problems and motivate people to keep up their good work?

It’s hard to motivate people to strive to be average. It’s not difficult to predict what will happen. Because so few people will be ranked as exceptional, you’ll have many top performers who are demoralized and either leave or start putting in more “average” performances. A much more motivating environment is one in which everyone is encouraged to do his or her best.

Here are some alternatives: (1) base evaluations on performance objectives, not standards so that everyone has the potential to be excellent if the objectives are met; (2) start a profit sharing plan that reimburses everyone at the same level if the organization is successful; (3) move toward a more variable pay plan in which employees are paid increases based on success criteria; and (4) scrap the annual reviews! Review compensation when warranted by a change of responsibility or market worth of a position. In general, there’s a lot to be said for separating performance evaluations from salary adjustments.

  • What can we do to provide incentives to employees who are now millionaires due to stock options? How can we keep them motivated to stay?

We all should have such problems! I’d say the only thing you can do is to get them involved in helping their stock to be worth more! Ask them what they’d like to have a positive impact on in the organization and then work hard to give them that opportunity.

  • I’d like some ideas on incentives or recognition programs that work in a manufacturing/production environment.

Every work environment has nuances, but I find the majority of effective recognition activities cross industry lines. At AlliedSignal Industrial Fibers in Moncure, NC, they post “Coach’s Award” certificates for doing a good job. Once a month they draw from those employees for a day off with pay. The same plant allows any employee to give praise to another at their morning plant-wide meeting, which they have found to be very motivating.

  • We currently have a weekly recognition program where employees are encouraged to recognize others who have helped them in any way during the week. This is tracked and if the number of recognitions reaches the target, everyone in the company receives a small gift (an umbrella, insulated lunch bag, etc.). We are at the point where people thank others for “always being friendly” just to get to the award level. Any ideas on how to keep the process alive without demeaning it?

Sounds like you have a good program in need of tweeking. Remind everyone of the original purpose of the program and put forth criterion or examples of what’s appropriate. “Always being friendly” might be a legitimate behavior worthy of praise if it genuinely helps the other person through his or her day. You can simply clarify that the purpose of the program was to recognize exceptional behavior, not day-to-day activities or normal job responsibilities. People will get the message. Another possibility is to find a way to screen answers beforehand.

  • How can I motivate sales reps who have low salary levels and low bonuses. We are a specialized confectionery and the operation is small. The reps work outside the office.

When financial incentives are especially limited, you must be even more creative in thanking people, making them feel valued, and celebrating success. Many call centers, for example, have this problem. If the environment can be made to be fun and if people truly feel valued, then the low pay can be better tolerated. Ask people what they’d like for a start, and then follow through.

  • Can an incentive program work when pay rates are below market levels?

Motivation does not have to start with money (not that it isn’t important). I’ve seen cases in which managers led with the “softer” approach of inspiring performance and then were able to be more financially successful and share the wealth with those who helped make success possible. I’ve seen work environments in which employees were not that well paid, but because they enjoyed the work they were happy—volunteer organizations, for example.

  • I’d like to come up with some creative ways to inspire motivation, but my bosses point out Alfie Kohn’s book, Why Incentive Plans Don’t Work. Kohn claims that incentives result in only temporary compliance and can destroy morale. What do you say about this?

Kohn’s book is provocative, although I believe it’s misguided. Not all rewards are short-term and manipulative. If you start with what is important to the individual, you want to motivate and help that person move toward goals, you are also reinforcing his or her intrinsic long-term needs. Ethical managers with sincere intent need not be manipulative.

  • We have a quarterly bonus system that I want to integrate the new performance appraisal system into. However, most targets can only be measured once a year, whereas the bonus calculation is done quarterly based on sales. Do you have any ideas how to solve this problem? Also, how can performance recognition be linked to flexible payment?

If bonuses are calculated quarterly based on sales, that’s a form of measurement right there. What milestones or supporting activities lead to successful sales? Have you employees come up with a list of relevant performance, prioritize that list, and have the top ones serve as general standards. You can also quantify intangible measures, such as helpfulness, teamwork, and the like.

As far as linking recognition to flexible payment, some companies do this with programs in which individual objectives and responsibilities each have a targeted range of financial incentives. Or divide incentives according to success on individual, group, and company objectives and over time increase the percentages of base pay.

 

PUBLIC SERVICE WORKERS

  • I work for the City of Golden, Colorado, as the supervisor of youth programs. The nature of the jobs I hire for tend to attract 19- to 24-year-olds. This age group seems so busy with their lives that I have a hard time motivating them to push themselves to give their all, especially working with young kids. Do you have any suggestions?

My bias is to find out what excites them and then try to see how you can do more of that. In my experience, younger workers are often motivated, for example, by their social context, so you might create opportunities for them to interact with their peers more both on and off the job. Younger workers are often very resourceful and thrive on challenging assignments and variety in their jobs.

  • How can the motivation formula be used to retain graduates in civil service or the public sector?

Recognition should be used to make employees feel they are doing important work that is valued by the organization. Most public service employees are drawn to public service in part as a calling, that is, work for the greater good of society. When people are systematically acknowledged for their contributions and achievements, it tends to impact how they feel about their jobs, how successful they are in those jobs, and how long they stay in those jobs. If you base the recognition on performance, you will get not only the performance you desire, but people who will want to stick around.

  • I’m writing a story about why elected officials might be motivated to work for free. Is it odd that someone would do this?

It’s not odd at all. There are a lot of reasons why someone might work for free, ranging from altruistic (helping others, creating a better community, possessing a sense of civic duty) to selfish (seeking fame or fortune from exposure to developing a network of contacts that can lead to financial gain). Hundreds of thousands or people work for free every day as volunteers for causes they believe in, for something to do, to spend time with others, or Feel they are making a difference with their lives. Money isn’t everything, and most people want to get more out of life than simply to gain greater wealth.

  • Our administration wants to spark life into our employee of the month program by increasing the dollar value of the award from $50 to $1,000, in spite of the fact that research shows that “timely, specific, sincere praise from supervisors/co-workers” is the number one desire of our employees. I’m afraid that by giving one larger award rather than multiple smaller ones with the money we’ll just make things worse and people will feel even less appreciated. I want to build a system for instant recognition instead.

I agree with you. My guess is that they also don’t believe the results of the research. It sounds like your bosses want a quick fix and think the extra money will spark interest in the program. While interest will likely be sparked, resentment will likely follow as substantial reward leaves a single person feeling great and everyone else feeling undervalues. You could do a lot more with that money that could have a greater impact on a larger percentage of your staff. With the increased budget, you could set criteria and recognize whoever meets that criteria every month. Winners could have lunch with the CEO to discuss concerns and receive his/her personal thanks. That could stir a lot of interest in your program. Why don’t you pull together a focus group in your organization, representing all functions, to discuss options and prioritize preferences. I believe your focus is better spent on no-cost recognition that all your managers should be doing on a daily basis, rather than on a single, larger financial reward.

 

OVERCOMING POOR MORALE

  • I’m a rewards and development manager for a prominent security industry. The rewards program is newly developed for the company, and my boss says the hype is not there. I feel as if I’m in a trap with buy-in not there from top management, and employee morale not high enough. Any advice would be appreciated.

It takes time to change a culture; start by bargaining for more time, then request your manager’s support—no one can do it on his own! Then establish a motivational baseline and find out what employees would like to see more of. Start there and when you can provide it morale will go up and management will see the value.

  • We are a small owner-managed real estate services company, appraisers, tax agents, admin support. Our company culture, starting at the top, is very businesslike, with closed door, production driven, nonparticipative management styles. I’m trying to develop an employee recognition program that would fit our culture and not be too loose.

First, realize that almost anything can serve as a form of recognition (time off, things, activities, or giving additional work if done in the right context). So eliminate any preconceived notions of what to do. You will be best served not to decide what to do in a vacuum. Ask your employees what they would be excited about doing. Try to use their ideas, not yours, and if you’re stuck for ideas pass around one of my books to get people thinking and have them flag what they’re talking about.

  • My employees are speech-language pathologists who deliver services in schools and work independently of other staff. They do stop by to pick up messages, write reports, etc., but do not attend staff meetings, so it’s difficult for me to hear what’s happening—even if it’s good news, but especially if it’s not. I’m thinking of setting up a reward jar in my office and when people come to me with a success they can take a mini candy bar or something. Morale is poor and I don’t want to do anything that would not be helpful.

My wife, a computer scientist, set up such a system for people to report computer “bugs” to remove the stigma of reporting bad news. In your case, I’d first ask your traveling staff for any ideas they have for improving communication and run your idea past a few “opinion leaders” first. Then try it on a casual basis for a few days to see what the reaction is. It might break the ice and give you something that others could build on to improve communication.

  • I work for a privately held software company based in Chicago with about 300 employees. We have a severe case of bad attitude, lack of motivation, and extremely high turnover. The majority of our workforce is consultants who work remotely and are on the road at clients’ about 75 percent of the time. The remote workforce cannot participate in our headquarters motivational programs, such as baseball tickets, happy hours, lunch and learns. We’ve tried gift certificates to Borders or American Express, but we just don’t have a way to set up a program. Do you have any suggestions?

You need to do at least as much for your employees in the field as you do for the headquarters staff. Don’t have distance be an excuse for inadequate recognition. Consider an enhanced use of e-mail and voice mail praisings, as well as recognition activities and programs just for field staff.

  • We’re doing our second reorganization in about two years. This time many employees have felt bad about where they were placed, upset about having so little input into the process, and generally down. I’d like to introduce team leaders to unique and fun training that lifts them up, gives them tools for motivating/rewarding/energizing employees. Since we do not see clients directly, it’s hard to see the benefits for the community, and thus we must focus on one another for support and recognition, which currently does not happen regularly.

Sounds as though it’s time for a fresh start at recognition in your organization. Organize a volunteer recognition task force (with all areas of the organization represented) and charge that group with coming up with a plan to revitalize the operation. They can draw on best practices, previous experience or the host of publications and data that are applicable about motivating today’s employees.

 

Employee initiative; Suggestion boxes; Being responsible for one’s own circumstances in difficult times

  • I am an IT professional who sincerely enjoys reading your books. I found a piece in an issue of CIO magazine in July 1999, page 34, that says Schwab employees can donate their sick time to others in need. This is the first I’ve heard of this arrangement. Do you know of others?
  • We want to create a sick day benefit pool to which employees can donate unused days and employees in need can draw from the pool. Our company has been faced with several tragedies during the past few months: one employee suffered an aneurysm and is in a coma and the husband of an employee committed suicide. We don’t provide short-term disability benefits and neither of these employees had a balance large enough to be compensated during the 90-day waiting period before long-term benefits kicked in. Employees pulled together and donated well over 100 days.

I have heard of other companies that did this, including Gene’s Books in King of Prussia, PA, which allows employees to donate unused sick days. It has helped bond employees together. Also, a recent story here in San Diego covered El Cajon, CA, city employee Helen Vasquez, who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Co-workers contributed their sick time so that Vasquez could undergo surgery and radiation treatments. The city has a history of organizing to meet the medical emergencies of employees. Mary Kaerth, director of personnel for the city, says that people usually donate comp time, vacation days, or sick time to a “bank.” There’s not usually a large surplus, because people donate a limited amount, usually for a particular person, and it’s possible to contribute on the day the time is needed.

In addition to building an esprit de corps, it also allows employees to play an active role in what is traditionally a passive benefit

  • I’m trying to obtain employee ideas, but have only received one response from 43 employees in 31 days. I read that The Boardroom, for example, expects at least 2 ideas a week from each employee. How do they get people involved and take their job more seriously? Do they use disciplinary action if people don’t take it seriously and make suggestions?

Don’t expect it to go perfectly from the start! Boardroom Inc. also took several tries before the program started humming. To answer your question, employees get more excited and involved when you involve them in the process and the decision about what you are going to do. You can’t command that people do their best work. It’s their decision. Some companies, including Boardroom (see sidebar), give a nominal incentive for suggestions, but the most important thing is to give feedback about what happens to the ideas to the person who submits them. The job itself will become more exciting as people start to be able to impact it.

  • I’m the head of two divisions at a medium-sized public library. Both my divisions and the library as a whole employ a majority of part-time workers. We’ve had customer-service training that went nowhere. Even low-cost recommendations, such as an employee of the month program or a suggestion box, have not gone over. Because of declining revenues, no one in the city has had a pay raise for five years and merit increases are frozen. How can we motivate our employees under these conditions and in the light of upcoming training in customer service.

Although your situation is unpleasant, you don’t have to be a victim. Instead of starting with the unfairness of the situation and thinking about how badly management is messing up, focus on what you and your staff could do to improve things without management approval or involvement. There’s probably a lot you can do without waiting for management to get enlightened. I’ve heard some of the best stories from people who took charge and started to make their own environments fun and exciting. This attitude can be contagious!

 

Carve out the turkey as a holiday gift choice

Receiving a turkey from your boss during the holidays is like finding coal in your sock from Santa.

If not personally delivered to employees’ homes with a hand-written note or served at the company luncheon, turkeys—especially the frozen variety—often leave employees cold. Why? If we know one thing from years of research about human behavior, it is this: You get what you reward. When all employees receive a holiday turkey, you are rewarding presence, not performance. Thus to many employees, the practice becomes a mere rite of survival: They made it through another year with the company.

Another blunder for company management. They received letters of complaint naming the colleagues who received bigger turkeys than the ones they got. Others wrote they preferred to receive a ham, while the vegetarians preferred fruit baskets. Needless to say, the turkey program didn’t motivate anyone, and for many employees it became a joke.

At another company, employees annually post a $1 pool to see who gets the biggest turkey. Employees of a medical center complained that the turkeys given this past holiday were smaller than the ones given from the previous year. At a manufacturing facility, employees united in defiance and dumped their frozen turkeys on their supervisor’s lawn.

One answer: Make employees feel truly valued by doing something personal for each one. Write a sincere note of appreciation that highlights individual achievements; spend time with each employee discussing his or her achievements of the past year and their hopes for next year; or post individual accomplishments on a company “Wall of Fame.” 

  • I recently read the article in Potentials about holiday turkeys. I couldn’t agree more. I think giving turkeys every year is tasteless. My company gives turkeys or gift certificates for meat from a local grocery store. This year I’d like to suggest something more personal and meaningful. We have 80 employees. Could you offer some suggestions?

I’d recommend an activity or event, for example having management serve a turkey lunch at which the past year’s successes are discussed. I know of a company that handed out gift certificates and had employees go and spend them on the spot, then come back and share what they bought and why with everyone. It was a fun team-building experience and everyone had a good time.

  • Do you have any fun ideas for activities or prizes for the holiday party?

Get people involved! Each department can something or present a skit or give an “award” to another person or department that has been helpful to them in the past year. Or you can let employees suggest ideas. They’ll come up with lots, you can be sure.

 

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