When Employee Awards Work—and When They Don't

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"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.

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