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How to make reward and recognition programs fun

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in Human Resources

The problem with standardized reward and recognition programs is that they are completely impersonal processes. Instead of thinking about the specific people involved, the company provides the same generic awards to everyone. But when an element of fun and play is added, the experience becomes personalized and much more memorable for the award recipient, without additional financial expense.

If you can make the reward and recognition process fun, your employees will talk about the event long after it’s ended, and you will have multiplied its team-building impact many, many times. 

Example 1: The shopping spree. Dr. Jeff Alexander of the Youthful Tooth dental office calculated that he could give a $200 bonus to each employee. But Alexander knew that if he just added $200 to each paycheck, his staff would’ve been excited for a little while, but probably would use the money for something “practical.”

So Alexander closed his office for two hours one afternoon, took all 35 employees to a shopping mall and handed each an envelope containing $200 in cash.

“This is not your money,” he told them. “It’s my money. But anything you buy for yourself with this money in the next hour is yours to keep. Here are the rules: You have to spend it on gifts for yourself. You have one hour to spend it, and you have to buy at least five different items. Any money you haven’t spent in the next hour comes back to me. Go get ‘em!” 

His employees spent the next hour dashing wildly from store to store, yelling back and forth to each other about treasures they’d found. “That was a real treat for them—and it gave me a great feeling, watching them having fun,” Alexander said.

Example 2: Ford has a better idea. Ford Motor Co. spent more than $1 million on one memorable evening, demonstrating that Alexander’s idea can be easily adapted to fit a more extravagant budget as well. Ford rented out Nordstrom’s department store in San Francisco one evening and gave $5,000 in spending money to each of its 250 top-selling sales managers, who were in town for a national sales meeting. Ford hired sports celebrities such as Tommy Lasorda and Julius Erving to accompany the sales managers on their shopping sprees.

The bottom line: No matter what your budget, you can make the bonus fun.

Matt Weinstein is the founding president of Playfair, Inc., an international team-building organization that pioneered the study of fun at work, and the author of the best-seller Managing To Have Fun. Contact him at

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