Dos and don’ts for rewarding employees

Do figure out your purpose in recognition. Do communicate. Don’t ignore your top performers. You’d be surprised how many organizations do that—to their detriment.

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Several years ago, Google, flush with cash and no doubt anticipating great PR, gave every staffer a $1,000 bonus and a 10 percent raise.

You might think that would impress Leila Bulling Towne, an executive coach who has made employee rewards and recognition her specialty. If so, you’d be wrong.

“To the top performer, what did that say?” Bulling Towne says. “I mean, think about it. You’re working really hard. The person next to you is just meeting expectations. You both get the 10 percent raise.”

(Some media reported that Google also offered additional merit raises, but you get her point.)

Whether you’re just offering a strategic attaboy or attagirl, or you’re working out a reward system to boost the bottom line, communications matter. Recognition and rewards are crucial for retention of staff, she says. Sadly, however, many recognition programs are opaque, inconsistent, and badly communicated.

Bulling Towne offers advice drawn from clients ranging from Silicon Valley startups to Fortune 500 companies.

Here are some dos and don’ts for communicating in ways that make rewards and recognition work for you:

Do: Figure out your purpose in recognition

Organizations often give vague reasons for rewarding staff. People will say that everybody’s doing it, a boss told them to hand out rewards, or they think it’s the right thing to do.

A common executive complaint about rewards is, “You’re not strategic enough.” What is your purpose, the result you hope to achieve by handing out certificates?

Here’s a goal you should embrace: “Create an environment where every employee can make the choice to do his or her part in meeting the organization’s goals,” Bulling Towne says.

Don’t: Ignore your top performers.

You’d be surprised: Many organizations believe rewarding the best employees is somehow undemocratic. Often, says Bulling Towne, organizations spend most of their time worrying about the problem children. They ignore the ones who excel.

“They’re superheroes,” the bosses tend to think, according to Bulling Towne. “You don’t have to worry about them. Gosh, they do everything well. I can rely on them. I’ll leave them alone.”

This breeds resentment among the very employees you wish to retain.

Do: Reward the right things

What merits recognition? An unexpectedly high level of performance, Bulling Towne says. Actions that save time and money. Increasing customer numbers and satisfaction. Innovation. Consistency and dedication. Learning new skills and applying them thoughtfully toward business results.

What doesn’t merit recognition? Showing up on time. Daily tasks accomplished according to set expectations. A slight boost in performance. Poor performance.

Don’t: Mess up the basics.

Rewards not tied to business results, or which are infrequent or badly timed, do nothing to create incentives. Also, avoid overblown adjectives such as “brilliant” and “amazing.”

Do: Connect the dots.

When you hand out those bonuses, tickets for the ballgame, or coupons for ice cream sundaes, be specific: Let employees know not only that they did a good job, but how they did a good job.

Bulling Towne offers this template for praise: “When you did X, we built/gained/executed Y.”

Do: Make expectations clear with all employees

Managers must be coached to give concise, meaningful feedback to their associates. Employee rewards programs work—but only if managers are having robust, accurate conversations, Bulling Towne says.

If you say, “We should turn out the light when we leave the room,” the employee may hear that it’s everyone’s responsibility. Instead, say, “I want you to do this…”

Remember, rewards and recognition only work if they are part of an overall strategy of good communication.


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