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.

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