With profits down and workloads up, management consultants are scrambling to tell corporate America how to heal the wounded morale of top talent without breaking the bank.
"Dress up in a bunny suit and fix them breakfast!" read one press release in my inbox.
"Offer to shave your head when they meet a stretch goal!" read another.
Not surprisingly, stories of botched morale events are being shared around the color copier like ghost stories around the campfire. I asked readers to send me their most laughable tales of mangled morale incentives. Here's what they had to say.
"Gina," an employee at a Seattle arts organization who didn't want her real name used, blames her new boss for a recent morale event that was royally bungled. When the boss, who Gina describes as "very different from the previous leader," "output oriented" and "no fun," sponsored a party for staff, the attendees were hardly inspired:
"The staff morale has been so low that the other directors begged her to let us do something -- maybe a rooftop barbeque with games. Finally she let us do it. It was to be a casual event, after work, feel free to wear jeans, there were games and prizes, etc. Everyone was to bring a dish. The boss showed up half an hour late, in a full suit, no dish to share and sat in the corner glaring at everyone. We encouraged her to make a speech to the staff. She stood up and basically said, 'Enjoy your party because it is the last one we will ever have. We are here to work not have fun.' We were floored at the bluntness."
Sometimes it's not the host who maims the morale event, but the guests. "Joseph," a human resources and technology consultant in Atlanta, had the misfortune of attending this professional gathering:
"I was on a consulting team last year where the project was going poorly. The team was badly organized with a lot of senior consultants with differing views on how to service the client. After eight weeks of traveling non-stop, the tension was noticeably affecting the deliverables for the project. The leader of the project decided at dinner one night that it would be a good team-building and cleansing exercise to have each person go around the table and identify what they didn't like about [each other] and where they thought they were weak. A few of the more frustrated consultants took that bait and the fur started flying. After about two hours of yelling from all sides of the table, everyone felt worse and whatever morale the team had was gone. The project was marginally delivered, and if asked, anyone on the team would say that the project was one of the worst experiences of their life."
A 2007 Florida State University study found that 40 percent of employees polled said they worked for a rotten boss. Their top gripe? Bosses who don't keep their promises, with 39 percent of workers polled making this complaint.
Gina, the arts organization worker, shared this tale of an ex-manager who made a lasting impression by not keeping her word:
"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:
"We had a program in which we rewarded [employees who got] good customer comments with $10 gift certificates. Brilliant me comes up with a way to save my employer money by giving a rose in a vase to each employee who received a nice customer letter. I sent out my assistant to purchase the cheapest vases she could find. We gave away lots of them. Until one day I overheard two employees laugh how they were going to get another one of those 'urinals.' When I looked closer, [I realized that] these ugly plastic vases resembled the kind of urinals used in hospitals. I quietly changed the policy to go back to giving out gift certificates."
Although he meant well, Eric Rutin, an executive at a Phoenix advertising agency that closed last year, threw a morale party that managed to offend a majority of staff in attendance:
"I had been doing a series of events to help build morale at our office since our raises weren't as aggressive as in years past. I coordinated a massage therapist to come in one day, we had manicures, brought in lunch and played board games. I thought watching a movie and having pizza would be a good one as well. Well, I rented "Borat," not really knowing anything about it other than some people said it was funny. As the movie progressed, people in my relatively conservative office were offended. Eventually we came to the naked men wrestling scene. That was the straw that broke the back of about three-quarters of the group, who got up and left completely offended. I spent the next several months apologizing again and again to several members of our staff. On the bright side, the couple kids I had just out of college loved it and watched the rest of the movie thinking I was great and hip."
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist and former cubicle dweller. She is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube". For more information, see Anti9to5Guide.com.