Time to get serious about rewarding employees

April 28, 2010 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

Globe & Mail

Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.

A client was selected as one of the top performers in her organization. Her reward: a one-week Caribbean cruise – with company executives.

It hardly pleased her. In fact, she was aghast. The prospect of going on a cruise, especially with senior management, was her idea of hell. “I don’t like schmoozing, I don’t like feeling trapped. Why couldn’t they just give me the money?” she said.

The client did go on the cruise – but she spent the entire week working inside her stateroom.

Another person I know recently celebrated 25 years with her employer. To honour her long service, her boss brought in a box of Timbits. The woman felt insulted. She said she would have preferred to receive nothing rather than “a piddling box of doughnuts.”

As these two stories illustrate, employers may have the best of intentions when they want to recognize their employees, but it is very easy for so-called rewards to go awry.

Getting them right is especially important now. The past year and a half has not been a very rewarding period for employees, who saw traditional incentives of salary increases, bonuses and training and development opportunities replaced with income cuts, shrunken career opportunities, job anxiety and increased workload without compensation.

Indeed, judging from recent employee survey results that clients have told me about, even rewards that don’t cost anything, such as compliments for work well done, have been in short supply.

As organizations start to recover from the recession, picking the right ways to reward employees, and avoiding common pitfalls, will be critical to repairing wounds to morale and restoring staff confidence and loyalty.

Rewards come in many forms, from the extrinsic – monetary bonuses, events such as dinners, conferences or speeches, and praise – to the intrinsic – the internal pleasure of having completed something in a way that met personal needs, whether by having contributed to an important project or executed a piece of work to the highest standards.

Some extrinsic rewards, such as money and appreciation, are valued by almost everyone. But even these must be tailored correctly to the situation and the person, or they can backfire.

Take appreciation for a job well done. A professional who has been doing the same type of work for many years knows when he or she is doing a good job. A compliment for work people can do with their eyes closed can be irritating and feel empty. In order for the praise to be truly motivating and appreciated, it needs to be tied to something the person values and is proud of.

As one 40-something human resources specialist said in a recent conversation: “My boss tells me what a great job I’m doing but it feels more like a platitude. I don’t think he has a clue when I really do something amazing and when I just do something which is basic to my profession. The praise just sounds like Management 101.”

Money is effective, but the amount has to be tailored to fit the situation – and be appropriate to the effort. An executive friend gave financial rewards to two team members who did exceptional work. One did the work in a week and received $25. The other, who executed a major project over a period of a year, was rewarded with $1,500. My friend said they were equally “blown away” by their bonuses.

Large monetary rewards can actually lead to unexpected outcomes. A client was given a large signing bonus when he accepted a high-level finance job. It led to a career crisis.

He had never thought seriously about the role money played in his life, other than operating from a script that said the more, the better. But such a large sum made him suddenly question himself.

“Am I a whore?” he asked me. “Is this [large sum] the only thing which motivates me? Is this what my life is about?”

He made a career change to a job that paid less outside the financial industry.

Of course, as my client’s reaction to a free cruise demonstrates, one person’s reward can be another’s punishment, if not shaped to their personal desires and motivations. For example, people who are ambitious and motivated by prestige love being singled out with an opportunity to shine in front of senior management. An invitation to lunch with the top brass is a huge morale booster.

But for someone more lifestyle-driven, such a reward wouldn’t have the same effect. One high-performing 30-something manager who received an invitation to the executive dining room told me a day off would have been more appreciated as a thank you.

Some people simply don’t feel comfortable being placed in the limelight. Many young chartered accountants I have worked with love the companionship and friendship that comes with being part of a team. But they feel self-conscious when they are given the star treatment by, for example, being invited to attend a special event for top performers.

This raises another disturbing trend in organizations that employers should note: There is a growing tendency to lavish goodies on high-potential staffers and ignore the rest. When you do this, not only do you incur the resentment of unrewarded staffers, who don’t like being treated as second-class citizens but, depending on temperament, you may actually inadvertently alienate your stars, especially the ones who shy away from the limelight.

And some reward choice may feel like throwaway junk that nobody gave any thought to.

Many get extremely annoyed at the waste when they receive see a perfectly good wallet or iPod inscribed with a huge logo that not even their kids would want.

An employer’s logo may have appealed to people in the 1970s and 1980s, but most employees today feel an emotional attachment to their team or their boss, not to their employer.

One young professional’s high performance earned him a clock radio. But it was emblazoned with a company logo. That irritated him. “I am happy to work for them. But I resent them thinking they can come into my bedroom and wake me up,” he said during a workshop.

Still, even gifts bearing company insignias can have meaning to some. One organization figured its employees didn’t appreciate T-shirts bearing its logo so it stopped the practice of handing them out for a job well done.

Many knowledge workers didn’t miss the shirts, but for a large contingent of immigrant workers in entry-level jobs, it turned out, the logo had symbolic value. They read the T-shirt as saying: “You are now Canadian and you belong in this country and company. You have a job here.”

Age also matters somewhat in getting rewards right – but it’s not as simple as employers think.

Many have attended one conference too many about different generations and concluded that Gen Yers are the only employees who pine for work/life balance. So they bend over backward courting younger workers with work/life-friendly promises.

But not all 20-somethings thrive on balance, while many boomers place time for self above their employer’s needs.

At the same time, as we get older, the rewards we value change. The psychic rewards of knowing one has done an outstanding or interesting piece of work, having opportunities to mentor a younger person, or making a contribution to something consistent with one’s values may count more than a boss’s compliment to a professional in midlife. Conversely, a pat on the back may make a 20-something glow.

Employers, if you want to get it right for everyone, here’s the best gift you can give: Equip people with skills. Opportunities to learn and be stretched are among the top motivators employees cite. It also ensures workers’ employability so that, if the worst happens and they lose their job, their qualifications are up to date and can be sold to someone else.

It’s not just about organizations getting rewards right. Employees, too, must know what they personally find deeply satisfying in order to make good decisions about what they need in their work.

When people understand what they find rewarding, they can look for opportunities to get more of it, whether through a high-profile assignment or by attending a conference. They can also tell their manager what they value.

The best reward: the satisfaction you derive when you feel, and can tell yourself, that you’ve made an important contribution.


Determine motivators

Ask employees what they value. Time off? Money? High-profile opportunities? Understand the individual psychology of your workers.

Tailor to individuals

Recognize that one person’s reward might be another’s punishment. Take into account their psychology, age and life situation.

Don’t discriminate

Treat staff alike. If you do something special for high-potential employees and ignore others, you risk de-motivating the rest of your team. This may not be a price you want to pay for rewarding someone.

Rethink age differences

Forget simple beliefs about what motivates different age groups. The generations have more in common than you think.

Provide development

Everyone needs to ensure their employability. People need up-to-date, transferable skills.

Make praise meaningful

Recognize and compliment significant accomplishments. And be specific about what you are rewarding.

Avoid environmental waste
Only give rewards that look like someone put thought into them. If it’s destined to become landfill because, say, the item looks cheap, is not useful or sports a huge company logo, think twice about giving it as a reward. If in doubt, food or wine are usually appreciated by almost everyone.

Be generous

Don’t be stingy, whether giving compliments or hosting employee events. Many organizations had a knee-jerk reaction to cutting things they didn’t need to. But be intelligent about the optics: Don’t put on lavish events in the midst of layoffs.

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