Your Employee Recognition Program May Be Working Against You
When I was fresh out of college I had a job that anyone would consider very cool,
even today. I worked for a celebrity – better yet a celebrity with an environmental/animal rights cause that took him to tropical paradises around the globe. In exchange for the cool factor, here was the deal that was presented to me: I would have to acknowledge the fact that the money coming into this celebrity’s “society” was best spent saving the planet and all the itty bitty critters who reside thereupon. In other words: the pay was way crappy.
Here were the numbers: I brought home one check a month. That check was made out for $525. Out of that check came my $275 a month rent in my NY apartment (this was a very long time ago). The rest had to go for everything else. By the time the end of the month rolled around, it was a question of quarters for the bus, or quarters for the laundromat. Fortunately, I liked walking. (Still do, even though now my walking trail is 4 miles in the Santa Fe desert, as opposed to 40 blocks up Lexington Avenue.)
So when the holiday season came around, I did what any young New York ingénue did in those days: I was the seasonal help at Macy’s Herald Square store. So I worried about money some (a lot). And since we were busy saving the itty-bitties of the world, the idea of getting any kind of holiday cheer from my celebrity boss hadn’t crossed my mind. Until I went to work one day in mid-December. (No, I won’t tell you what year, but if you are reading this, chances are good you were alive then.)
Sitting on my desk was one big honking crock of mustard, French of course – presumably a nod to my celebrity boss’s nation of origin, but most likely picked up on the fly at the local Gristede’s. Alrighty then. Mustard. Okay. Maybe if I watered it down, I could make some tasty mustard soup. A potage a la moutarde, as it were.
As I stood there staring at it, wondering how to take the red wax seal off the jar without damaging one of my two table knives, in swept the executive director of this organization. All of us coworkers in this room looked up from our identical jars of mustard and gaped.
“Look! Look what Monsieur Celeb gave me!” she crowed as she twirled in her full-length fur coat. “Next year I hope it’s a seal coat!”
The workplace is a gold mine for hurt-so-good stories, isn’t it? And this is one of my juiciest tidbits. I think that all the players in this story (other than myself, of course) have long departed this watery planet, and I don’t want to say anything bad about the organization that has survived. (It’s still doing great and important work under a complete change of management.) So I tell this story only as an example of a really stupid management trick that caused at least one person to quit pretty much on the spot – well, after the Macy’s check cleared.
The reason why I’m telling the story today is to show one extreme example of how a thoughtless recognition gesture can really backfire. And now I’ll talk about how your rewards/recognition program can serve your organization by not only making your employees feel great about themselves and the group they work for, but also by reinforcing your values and, presumably, a culture of engaged people working together for the same, shared goals.
Your rewards and incentives should absolutely mirror the values of your organization. So if you want employees to put original thought and creativity into their work, put original thought and creativity into the way you thank them for the work they do!
Run-of-the-mill acrylic or gold-toned doodads just don’t cut it anymore. Unless they’re, of course, really big and the recipients love to have larger-than-life trophies that acknowledge their record-breaking performance last quarter (I’m thinking of a few sales reps that I know who have zero workspace left on their desks because of all their hard-earned trophies). But other than that scenario, I would guess that most high performers have enough coffee mugs and husks of deflated mylar balloons cluttering up their lives.
If you want to reward your employees for doing really thoughtful work for your organization and its common cause, make sure your rewards reflect that same level of thoughtfulness and originality. Here are some ideas from my book, The Truth About Getting the Best From People.
Lavish the recognition; spare the rewards. When it comes to intangible forms of recognition (we’re not talking paychecks and pensions here), what really drives people everywhere is the knowledge that they’re being noticed for investing their individual efforts to the big picture mission. No one likes to be invisible or a number. Everyone has a name, face and a life story. That’s how we all prefer to be recognized first. Know your direct reports – and preferably their direct reports – by name. Know a little bit about who they are, what brings them to your team, and what their dreams are. And let them know you know.
When you do give tangible rewards, make those rewards specific to the person or to the accomplishment that’s being celebrated. Even a relatively “catch them doing something right” $20 spot reward should have significance that speaks to them personally. Challenge yourself to come up with specific ideas for each employee, with the idea of making sure the reward relates to something that gives them joy in life. Even if they love coffee, try to steer clear of the coffee mug solution. Get them a gift certificate to their favorite coffee store instead. Or if they’re readers, a gift card that’s sufficient to pay for one full-price hardcover book will tell them that you pay attention to who they are in addition to what they’re doing for you.
Give them a gift certificate to their future. When the reward is for a significant accomplishment or service, give them something that will help them build their future. Send them to a key industry conference, for instance. Or offer to pay for a college course of their choice.
Give them the chance to benefit the future of others. So many big winners of annual employee competitions go off-site to luxurious resorts where they party and listen to motivational speakers to pump them up for the next year. Since you’ve got all this great passion gathered in one place, give them the platform instead. Get someone to interview them about their secrets of success and gather their collective wisdom and insights to share with the rest of the company as an internal training program.
Let people see that you’re trying. Person-to-person appreciation doesn’t come easy for many managers. If saying nice things to an employee’s face makes you feel awkward and vulnerable, your employees probably already know this about you. So don’t hide it. Deal with it. Some managers who are struggling with this personal behavior challenge will put 10 pennies in one pocket, shifting a penny to another pocket every time they express sincere appreciation to an employee. Just because you may have to force yourself to do it this way, doesn’t make the appreciation itself any less authentic. You are working hard to integrate this habit into your daily worklife. And your efforts will be noticed. And your people might even recognize you for it.
No matter what form it takes, sincere appreciation is an essential part of a workplace culture in which people throughout the ranks behave respectfully and encouragingly to each other. This is a way of life, not just some program goal to meet. Your people will know if you’re speaking from the heart or reading from a script.
It really is the thought that counts. So when you want to recognize your employees in a way that’s meaningful to them, put some thought behind it!
(And pass the mustard.)
Martha I. Finney is the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People, and a consultant specializing in employee engagement. For a free consultation on how you can build a vacation-friendly workplace culture, email Martha at Martha@marthafinney.com.