When Employee Awards Work—and When They Don't

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If you're a celebrity gawker like me, Oscar night offers a cornucopia of delights. From the bling and cummerbunds to the standing ovations and emotional breakdowns to the endless stream of thank-yous blubbered at moms, makeup artists and mistresses in the audience, there's no shortage of excess.

Back on Planet Earth—where the rest of us sit behind a desk or stand at a counter or operate heavy machinery for a living—receiving an award for a job well done is about as glamorous as a trip to the proctologist. As a result, it's often as inspiring.

Either we're given a cheesy plaque we wouldn't be caught dead displaying on our wall or an Olive Garden gift certificate that barely covers dinner for one. Or we're reminded just how pointless employee awards are when the teammate who contributes the least wins Employee of the Year—for the third consecutive time.

A reader I'll call Carlos described this particularly demoralizing employee award experience: "I thought my department was finally going to get the whole awards thing right for a change," said Carlos, an insurance professional who didn't want his real name used. "They named a peer committee to not only pick the winners, but to create the award categories."

Carlos expected he'd finally see some colleagues whose valuable work had gone unrecognized for too long get the props they deserved. Instead, the awards committee pulled a stunt worthy of Michael Scott, the clueless, inappropriate boss on the TV show "The Office."

"The committee gave out five awards—four of which went to people on the committee," Carlos said. "They basically used the company's time and money to give themselves a public pat on the back."

Of course, not all employee awards programs are this ineffective and insulting. And with a few tweaks, those that are can easily be fixed, whether you're a manager or a peer on a nominating committee. For suggestions on how to build an awards program employees will appreciate, I spoke with several workplace experts and a number of managers and employees. Here's what they suggested.

Forget Empty Flattery

Employees aren't stupid. They can smell a token award a mile away, whether you're trying to pacify a valued worker who's expressed job dissatisfaction lately or schmooze a powerful team lead you hope to influence in the future.

"Awards have to be honest, sincere and real," said Peter Handal president, CEO and chairman of Dale Carnegie Training, which offers performance-based training solutions to businesses worldwide.

"It is absolutely a mistake to give somebody an award just because you want to butter them up," Handal advised. "The time to give an award is when someone has really accomplished something worth mentioning—for example, when a salesperson meets or exceeds a large goal."

Award Employees Infrequently Yet Immediately

One of the swiftest ways to take the wind out the sails of an employee awards program is too dole out too many danged awards.

"You have to maintain awards as being special," Handal said. "Give too many and too often and you take that away."

Likewise, if you award an employee 12 to 18 months after they performed some awe-inspiring task, the recognition loses impact.

"Ideally, you want to reward people when they deliver results—no sooner, no later," Bruce Tulgan, author of nearly 20 career management books, including "It's Okay to Manage Your Boss," said via e-mail interview. "Immediate rewards are most effective because there's no doubt about the reason for them."

Not only does this reinforce the behavior of the award-winning employee, Tulgan added, it shows the rest of the team that peak performance does get noticed by those at the top.

Include Telecommuters and Other Flex Workers

According to a 2010 study by global research firm International Data Corporation (IDC), more than 1 billion people around the globe now telecommute some or all of the workweek. If you want all your employees to value your awards system, make each of them eligible for it—no matter where, when, and how many hours they work.

Nix the Engraved Crystals and Company Key Chains

A hunk of etched glass or a T-shirt bearing your company logo may not make your people feel nearly as appreciated as a check will. Ditto for a paid day off or a gift certificate to a nice restaurant. But don't assume all workers are motivated by the same rewards. Your techies might drool over some hot new piece of software, while your writers might be perfectly content with a gift certificate to a nearby independent bookstore.

In other words, don't give your people what you hope they want—give them what they actually do want. (If you're not sure, you could always ask.) Start thinking outside the trophy box and you might be surprised by how much you people step up their game.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance writer and former cubicle dweller. Her books include 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. Follow her at @anti9to5guide.