The path to a productive work environment is paved with praise

The economic slump hasn’t done much for your business, your employees haven’t received raises, and morale is pretty much going down the drain. What do you do to lift spirits and encourage your employees to keep working hard and going strong?

Strokes of Genius The path to a productive work environment is paved with praise By Tabitha Yang


The economic slump hasn’t done much for your business, your employees haven’t received raises, and morale is pretty much going down the drain. What do you do to lift spirits and encourage your employees to keep working hard and going strong?

Three words: Give them recognition. This may sound simple, but unfortunately, many companies fail to do enough in this department. Employee recognition can come in many forms, whether it’s sending handwritten notes of thanks to top-performing employees or allowing workers to earn points that can be redeemed for rewards. Fairness and consistency should be the hallmarks of the approach you choose.

"You have to be cautious that any program you have in place is not subject to popularity contests and has the most objective standards you can come up with," says Sam Varn, the president and co-owner of Awards4U, a Tallahassee-based company that provides plaques and personalized rewards programs for various companies.

Varn implements a number of rewards and recognition measures at his company, including nominating an "Employee of the Month." In order to make nominations as fair as possible, the Employee of the Month is chosen by a regularly rotating board of four employees. At company meetings, Varn puts people "on the spot," pulling out a circular piece of red cardboard and asking employees to pick someone to stand on it while others talk about the good work that person has been doing recently.

"If you look at the statistics, money is not the motivator. Recognition is," he says. "And recognition is not necessarily giving someone a plaque — it’s pulling people out on the spot and recognizing them."


The best things in life are free

You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money on expensive rewards for your employees. Showing them that you appreciate them can be reward enough for good behavior, and there are lots of different ways to do that.

A survey conducted in 2007 by Accountemps, a specialized staffing service for temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, showed that office workers named frequent recognition of accomplishments as the best non-monetary way to motivate workers.

Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola has a number of measures in place to recognize employees for their service.

"We do a lot of rewards and recognition here, because it helps morale and lets people know that you care about them," says David Powell, Sacred Heart’s executive director of organizational effectiveness. "We do a lot of thank-you cards when we catch someone doing something good."

The hospital also provides perks for employees, such as discounts to local fitness clubs and discounts to cruises. Sacred Heart’s activities team plans events such as team bowling or group softball games so co-workers have a chance to bond and have fun together. It also schedules a yearly picnic that all hospital employees and their families are invited to.

Handwritten thank-you notes and discounts are good ideas for boosting morale, but just as meaningful is affirmation from a co-worker. Florida Commerce Credit Union, which is local to Tallahassee and has eight branches, has a program called "Pat on the Back" on its intranet, where employees can compliment or thank each other.

"All the pat-on-the-backs go into a drawing, and at our all-staff meetings, we pull two of them and recognize those people, and they receive a prize," says Donna Moran, the credit union’s director of human resources. "The pat-on-the-backs can include comments like ‘Thanks for helping me out today when this difficult member came in and I didn’t have the information they needed.’ "


Spend a little for big returns

Giving employees a little free recognition is great, but sometimes it is appropriate to give them a bigger gift. Think of it as an investment in company morale.

At Florida Commerce, employees who have been with the company a year are recognized at one of the three annual company meetings and given a gift basket with a $25 Visa gift certificate. Employees who have been with the company five, 10, 15 or more years are given a plaque and a Hallmark award, which allows them to log on to the Internet and choose a gift for themselves. The amount of the Hallmark award varies depending how long the employee has been with the credit union. Typically, employees receive $100 for each year they’ve been with the organization.

The credit union also gives out Pinnacle Awards when employees have done exceptional work that furthers one of the six company values: community, education, people, convenience, service and security. These awards are not easy to win, Moran says. For example, to win a service award, an employee must receive 25 letters from customers praising him or her for excellent service. But having clearly outlined requirements that must be met to win the award helps to make the awards process fair and prevent any appearance of favoritism.

Another program that rewards employees for exceptional performance is the Beaches of South Walton’s Above and Beyond award, which any resort worker can be nominated for. The program was started in 2007 as a way to recognize employees who had demonstrated exceptional service to beach visitors.

The first-place winner this year received a trip to Tallahassee, which includes a stay at a nice hotel and local amenities, and a free piece of artwork from Phil Kiser, The Beaches of South Walton’s 2006 artist of the year. All three top vote-getters received gift certificates to local shops and restaurants and will be honored at local lunches and events.

This year’s winners are: Grand Prize — Marivell McCarty, Sandestin Golf & Beach Resort; 2nd Place — Darrell Smith, Hilton Sandestin; 3rd Place — Lisa Boecker, Fusion Spa & Salon.


Use rewards to encourage behavior

Razor Suleman, CEO of the Canadian company I Love Rewards, has put rewards programs in place for companies including Microsoft, Clark’s Shoes and Marriott Hotels.

He says the secret to driving human behavior can be found in the acronym PIC-NIC, which stands for "positive, immediate and certain" and "negative, immediate and certain."

In other words, if you want to give people a positive motivation for doing something, promise them a reward that is guaranteed to happen and goes into effect immediately after the desired action is accomplished.

Suleman gives the following example to illustrate his point. In an effort to recruit new workers for his company, he asked his employees to recommend people who might be a good fit. In 2006, he had an average of 1.1 recommendations per employee, which wasn’t bad but wasn’t exactly stellar, either.

In 2008, the company put a different incentive in place — one that had a guaranteed outcome. For every job candidate recommended by an employee, I Love Rewards would guarantee that person an interview, and the person who recommended the candidate would automatically receive 2,000 points to redeem, which is the equivalent of about $20.

The results were dramatic. "We had 2.4 referrals per employee," Suleman says. "We had a 230-percent increase in performance. We found that one in every 12 employee referrals turned into a successful hire, which means we paid 12 people 2,000 points, about $20, which came to $240."

Quickly and consistently rewarding good behavior is the cornerstone of the programs Suleman installs for outside companies as well. His company designs programs that allow employees to earn points that they can then log on to the Internet and use to redeem for items such as Coach bags or iPods.

"We offer brand-name products — things people would buy with their own money," Suleman says.


A few things to keep in mind

It’s best to put concrete standards in place to set the bar for rewards and recognition, says Lane Rees, president of the Northwest Florida company Human Resource Solutions.

"Recognition can fall flat if it’s not measurable," he warns. "If you’re able to measure what somebody’s doing, whether it’s a good story, or whatever, if it’s measurable, the recognition means more because it has substance or value and it’s not just something that’s based on a feeling."

Rees suggests using a job description to help you determine what constitutes going above and beyond the call of duty.

"When you look at a job description, it should be written to capture the essence of what the person will be doing," he says. "A good job description should be there not only for recruiting but for recognition and rewards, as well as your performance."

And last but not least, mean what you say.

"You want the recognition to be sincere," Rees says. "If it’s not sincere, the employee can tell and it doesn’t help."