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How “Employee of the Month” recognition can backfire

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in The Savvy Office Manager

Employees need to be recognized if you want them to stay motivated. So an “Employee of the Month” program seems to make sense. You’ll choose monthly heroes, give them a gift card, a designated prime parking spot, and frame their portraits on the lobby wall for all to admire. These are the pistons of your company’s engine.

Not so fast. If this thing’s not done right, it can stymie employees’ efforts, drag down morale and incite jealously, suspicion and hard feelings.

If your award program has any of the following pitfalls, consider scrapping it.

1. No clear criteria. To keep the contest open to everyone, the monthly prize is open to anyone for just about any reason. If the selection system lacks guidelines, it might go something like this:

“Patty had a great save this month. She remembered to water the plants in the lobby when the facilities manager was out on leave. Commendable, Patty! You are our Employee of the Month.”

Serendipity has its merits. But don’t reward it.

Employees need to know what they need to do to have a shot at the award. Spotting two transposed numerals in the company’s phone number that’s about to be printed on tens of thousands of costly brochures is a great catch, but is it worth a prize? An arbitrary employee recognition system will do little toward achieving what the system was designed to do in the first place—motivate.

Employees are left guessing—or worse yet, not really caring—what kind of effort or strange hoop they need to jump through to become next month’s winner.

2. The winner is chosen by peers. This has clique written all over it. You might think a panel of equals is the best and fairest way to come up with an Employee of the Month. But do the members of the panel have all the information on who did what and what it all meant in the scheme of things for the company? Do they really take a critical look at everyone’s effort and what they’ve accomplished? Probably not. When the panel announces its choice for the award, the rest of the staff sees little merit in the choice. Big deal, they think.

3. One person wins it twice (or more) in a year. Employees quickly cry favoritism (the death knell of morale) when they see that one particular co-worker keeps landing in the winner’s circle. In reality, if the prize were given to someone who truly deserved it, it would be natural for a talented performer to win it several times. But his or her co-workers won’t view it that way. They would rather see the plaque go to 12 different employees in the course of the year—which is why Patty won.

4. A number of employees deserve it. Yes, this happens. And it usually happens because people work in teams. (Isn’t that what you want them to do?) To single one champion out of many who put the time, effort and expertise into a project’s success is asking for a reduction in enthusiasm on the next project.

Recognition is most effective when it’s spontaneous and well-deserved. It’s a simple day-to-day program that need not be elaborate or ceremonial.

Just sincere.

And save that spot on the lobby wall for an all-employee group photo.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Madeline September 22, 2014 at 4:28 pm

That has happened so many times to me in the past.

My solution:
If someone has already won for one month, they should not be considered in that calendar year. This should be opened to all, not just a few select few whom the manager happens to like.

Whomever is on that panel to pick the winner each month, has to and must be very impartial.

If a winner won’t be picked for a particular month, then everyone in that group should be specially mentioned and honored.

That’s my take on this.

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