10 tales of backfiring, condescending efforts to boost morale

Manipulation is bad enough; being treated like a kindergartner may be worse. You be the judge.

Companies either make an effort or don’t when it comes to boosting employee morale. Some are done with integrity and show credible appreciation for the staff. And sometimes, it’s just outright insulting and condescending.

These are those stories. Morale boosting efforts that generate the opposite response.

What I’ve discovered is that a quick-fix attempt to boost morale almost always comes off as condescending. Your employees are not stupid. If they were, you probably wouldn’t have hired them.

If morale is low, then there are overall issues in the company that need to be fixed. A party, dinner, or company award isn’t going to erase the negative sentiment that’s been built up over years.

I went out seeking stories from people who have been subjected to these morale boosting efforts’ utter failure. In some cases people willingly revealed their name and/or company. In other cases, they didn’t want themselves or their company to be identified. In those anonymous cases, I have made up a name of the person and put it in quotes.

1. To show my gratitude for working late, here’s this almost completely worthless piece of paper

Before starting Spark Media Solutions, I worked for an ad agency called Publicis Dialog, where I launched its custom publishing and new-media divisions. Dialog was part of the greater network of Publicis companies worldwide. In the United States, it appears Publicis Dialog has completely folded.

In an attempt to get people to work overtime, yet not feel like they’re being taken advantage of, Publicis instituted “Passion Points.” Any employee could give a “Passion Point” to another employee for any reason. If you collected at least 10 of these “Passion Points,” you could cash them in at the Publicis store for something like a Publicis-branded backpack or tote bag.

In almost every single case, a staffer received a “Passion Point” for working late. They became your overtime “consolation prize.”

Are you doing the math already? What Publicis was saying to its employees was, “Work one to three hours extra and we’ll give you this piece of paper that’s worth 1/10th the cost of a $25 bag.” In other words, Publicis got us to work overtime for about $1-$3 an hour.

2. No bonus for you means a great PR opportunity for me

Jeff Bogensberger, now CEO of SOCO Games, was a supplier for a large fitness club chain in Canada. At the staff Christmas lunch, the owner and executive team made a speech that in lieu of the usual Christmas bonus, they would donate the money to a charity. On the onset the donation seemed a noble gesture and appropriate for the holiday season. Then Bognsberger’s CEO pulled out the big novelty check and posed in front of the hired photographers.

“The fact that the owner had a personal interest in supporting the charity made the whole thing so transparent that everyone was furious,” said Bogensberger.

3. Will this bullshit award make you feel any better?

The fitness club PR debacle wasn’t Bogensberger’s only disappointing office holiday party. During another Christmas party at a sales-driven organization that had exceeded targets all year, the owner made a speech about how the company is nothing without his people. He then started giving out awards. Unfortunately, these weren’t the kind of awards that are engraved on wooden plaques and came with bonus checks.

“These were awards that were clearly printed out on the office printer that afternoon,” said Bogensberger, “I don’t think they even had the person’s name on it.” He continued to explain that they looked like an award a 7-year-old would get at school and his parents would hang it on the refrigerator.

Can I cash in my award for a new refrigerator?

4. Nothing relieves stress worse than…a CLOWN!

“Mark” was working at a nonprofit that was about to take on an extremely large project. It was causing a lot of stress and was affecting morale and performance.

What can we do to relieve the stress, thought one of Mark’s managers. I know, we’ll hire a CLOWN!

And thus launched the world’s worst morale-boosting effort ever to be devised.

Mark’s colleague, “Jim,” witnessed the entire incident. Jim was in a conference room having a very tense discussion with his colleagues, and in walked the clown. The employees were shocked, unable to speak, and the clown proceeded to do what clowns do. He messed with the document on the projector, and then made balloon animals.

Responses were fairly typical. There was a lot of head shaking and, “They did what?! A clown?! You’ve got to be kidding!”

“It was one of the most awkward and appalling moments of my professional life,” said Jim.

5. Come on, people, I’m doing everything I can except listen to you

Barry Maher’s ” personnel-phobic boss had Richard Nixon’s inability to relate to “the little people.” That “look down upon” attitude came through in her pathetic morale-boosting efforts, Maher said.

She created dissension in the office by scattering candy dishes where most of the employees were trying to diet. She pumped in elevator music that everyone hated, and then filled the office with motivational banners like, “Walk the elephant and pitch to the giraffe,” Maher said.

Yeah, I don’t get it either.

“She was really into all this superficial morale-boosting without ever really taking the trouble to find out what people were really like,” said Maher, “To her, people were just the tools to her next promotion, which she never got because she couldn’t really relate to them. “

Ultimately, Maher said, she may have unwittingly boosted our morale by providing a common obstacle for us all to overcome.

6. Is this picnic for the employees or a check box for management?

“Keith” worked for an organization whose holiday party and summer picnic were so sparsely attended that executive management decided that attendance should became mandatory. Because staffers already spent an awful lot of time together, “forced fellowship” events like these were seen as unnecessary. To complicate matters, spouses and kids were “encouraged” (a.k.a. “you’ll be judged if your family doesn’t come”) to attend.

Originally, the events were scheduled for Friday when spouses had their own work and kids were in school. The solution was to have employees take Friday off and move the party to Saturday. That didn’t work either, as the party was near the end of the fiscal year and no one could afford to take off Friday.

“So the majority of us worked a full day on Friday, and then got to come in Saturday to stand around, trying to look happy and engaged, when what we really wanted to do was have a weekend to ourselves,” Keith said.

“Once in a while,” Keith continued, “Someone would suggest making the social events optional again, and the social committee would respond, ‘But then no one would come!'”

“Yes, exactly,” said Keith, “Take the hint!”

7. You may work at a bank, but we’re going to treat you like a Cub Scout

When Dave Anthony, co-host of the Walking the Room podcast, worked at First Federal Bank, bank managers gave out “achievement” ribbons that employees were supposed to wear. They were designed to help team-building, said Anthony, “but it just led to people not wanting to wear the flair, and we all avoided trying to sell the products.”

At Restoration Hardware, one source explains that CEO Gary Friedman has a little bit of “den mother” in him as well. On corporate team-building retreats, he requires senior-level employees to put in writing, with signatures, their devotion to the company. They then chant the company mantras out loud together.

Who knew your professional career could be so much like summer camp?

8. Your nonprofit work doubles as group therapy

Working at a nonprofit, “Joshua” watches the first 10 minutes of an agenda-packed meeting sink into a void of productivity. During this “ramp-up time” employees must “check in” with responses to requests such as, “Tell me your favorite moment from the past week.”

If there’s any dissension, employees are given a kindergartner’s “time out.” Their negative response is corrected: “Respect each other’s differences…Two ears, one mouth…Can we all agree to this?” Approval of these “group agreements” are required before any meeting begins.

Group hug, everybody.

9. Nothing makes a top salesman feel more special than having a roommate

The top 10 performers at “Matthew’s” 60-person company were treated to the “President’s Club,” a weekend retreat to Las Vegas. In an effort to save a few bucks, the CEO required those staffers who didn’t bring spouses to share rooms. A not-so-bright tactic to cut corners with the employees responsible for making the CEO the most money.

Sales staffers were extremely insulted. No one felt special at all, and a couple of people left as a result. The Vegas trip soon became a company joke: “Can I hit my target and decline the President’s Club?”

10. Sometimes morale-boosting isn’t necessary, so don’t push it

Patty Azzarello of Azzarello Group and author of Rise: How to Be Really Successful at Work AND Like Your Life remembers a tale of one employee who declared a morale problem for the whole division—and she was determined to fix it.

She was going on and on about it so much that employees came to Azzarello’s office saying: “I didn’t know I was supposed to have a morale problem. I wasn’t unhappy. Now I’m thinking that I should be.”

Azzarello quickly put an end to the staffer’s morale-building attempts, and everyone’s morale stayed good, except hers.

“I think morale programs often have this effect, sometimes because they are lame and backfire, and other times because they just point to the fact that management is not creating a good environment to work in the first place, and then it’s seen as too little, too late,” Azzarello said.

“In my teams, I would make sure communication was good, policies were fair, assholes were dealt with, and I would assign someone to create ‘fun’ activities,” Azzarello continued, “I never use the phrase ‘morale.’ It’s too easy to trigger problems that don’t exist.”

David Spark is a veteran tech journalist and the founder of the media production and consulting firm Spark Media Solutions. Spark blogs regularly at Spark Minute. Follow him on Twitter @dspark.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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