"Our boss promised to have everyone over for dinner at her house if we conquered a huge project. This would have been extra special because she is a major art collector and most of the staff had not seen it in person but had read about it in home decor magazines. The staff did a splendid job and the dinner was supposed to happen in the summer. The boss announced this at a staff meeting and said she would get back to us with a date. A few months went by and she brought it up again but wanted to change it to fall, still no date. Then fall started to creep on us and she said maybe the winter, like a holiday party. Didn't happen. On Jan. 1 she announced her retirement effective Feb. 1. No dinner."
Office parties come and go. But broken promises involving cash incentives might be the ones that vex employees the most.
Just ask "Samantha," a former editor for a small New York publishing company, who, along with her co-workers, received an unexpected cash reward from management, only to have a portion of it retracted days later:
"They gave us a $300 bonus and then rescinded half of it, saying they didn't mean to give us that much. They sent us an e-mail saying that they were going to take it back over the next couple of paychecks. There were only 12 of us at the company; it wasn't like there were 1,000 people. If you're a manager or a business person, you have to realize that you're removing more good will than you actually gave when you claw a bonus back."
Managers who greatly exaggerate the rewards they have waiting for staff who exceed sales quotas, resolve accounts receivable issues or otherwise bring in a bit more bacon don't do themselves any favors. Just ask Gregorio Palomino from San Antonio:
"When I worked for a major package delivery company, we were promised a wine basket of 1940 to 1960 selections for any employee in our department who could save any outstanding account with a $100,000 or more balance. We all figured that having a wine basket worth close to $1,000 was worth some extra time. Three of the reps were able to get their accounts current. But once it was time to collect our gifts, we were given only a $100 gift card to Target to purchase wine and a 10 percent off coupon to go with it so we could afford more. Bad promo."
It's not always the thought that counts when trying to raise morale. Sometimes it's the timing.
"Derek," who works at a West Coast software company, offered this tale of an ill-timed employee award:
"My company laid off 15 percent of the division I work for last year. Several weeks later, in a department-wide meeting, one of the big bosses started handing out 'awards of excellence' to people nominated by their fellow employees long before the staff cuts. Only thing is, one of the names the big boss called belonged to someone who had been laid off. The person's immediate supervisor raced to the front of the room, clearly flustered, and accepted the award on their behalf. But the damage was already done. The fact that the big boss didn't even know who had been laid off put a damper on the meeting."
Even good managers aren't immune to mishandling morale boosters. When Tim McHeffey was a retail manager in Patchogue, N.Y., he made this flub: