Beware of Employee of the Month Programs

bob's Blog Dr. Bob Nelson

Many companies use employee-of-the-month awards.  This award may include a photograph of the honoree with an engraved nameplate in the lobby of the business, perhaps a reserved parking place and/or a small cash bonus.  Variations on employee-of-the-month programs are almost endless.  At Acapulco Restaurants in Long Beach, CA, the honoree also gets a paid day off.  At Gregerson's Foods, a retail grocery chain in Cadsden, AL, the person receives a silver name tag inscribed with that title, the month and year of the award to wear as long as they work for the company.  As popular as these programs are, they may not be the best for motivating today's employees.

What's Wrong With Them

It's difficult to motivate employees through a "program."  Programs are often too distant and formal for individuals to get excited about.  Motivation is very personal and stems primarily from the interaction between an employee and his or her manager.  What is motivating to an individual also varies from person to person.  The best motivation comes from daily positive reinforcement by management of desired performance with as many employees as possible--not something that occurs once a month for a single employee. 

When new, an Employee of the Month program can stimulate much employee excitement, however, over time much of the thrill is often lost.  Oftentimes the selection criteria for the program drifts and overheard are such things as "Let's give it to someone in Accounting--they never get it" or "Sally can't get it, she already received it earlier this year."  In other instances, the program reaches a saturation point in which so many employees have received the award that it no longer seems special.

A program's reputation can also easily be tarnished.  In one company I consulted, management was seeking to fix the employee-of-the-month award, which many employees and managers felt was ineffective.  By talking with employees, I quickly learned that some employees that received the award were not considered deserving by other employees.  I also learned that it was a great administrative burden for managers to nominate someone for the program--and a humiliating experience for both the manager and employee if "corporate" subsequently rejected the applicant.

Getting More From a Program

If you have to have an employee-of-the-month program, there are some things that can help it be more successful.  First, make sure other things are systematically being done to recognize employee performance in the workplace on a daily basis.  Make sure, for example, that managers in your organization know the importance of giving feedback on performance, timely praisings, and informal recognition.  This takes pressure off of the employee-of-the-month program to be your organization's sole means for motivating employees.  

Second, employee-of-the-month programs can be improved if nominations are open to everyone, not just by management.  This keeps the program from being biased to employees who have greater visibility with management.  At ICI Pharmaceuticals Group in Wilmington, DE, nominations for the Performance Excellence Award can be made by a peer, supervisor, coworker or department head.  At Meridian Travel Inc. in Cleveland, OH, they take it one step further by allowing all employees to vote each month on who gets the Employee of the Month award.  And at the Office of Personnel Management in Washington D.C., the recipient of the Wingspread Award of is allowed to select the next recipient--with the criteria and timing of that person's choosing.

Third, a program can be further improved if its not limited to being given once a month--so as to seem like a quota--but is instead more closely tied to outstanding performance whenever that happens.  At El Torito Restaurants in Irvine, CA, managers award "star bucks" when they catch an employee doing something right.  At the end of the month each restaurant and region has a drawing for prizes (cash, TV, VCR, etc.) and the more star bucks one receives, the better the chances of getting prizes.  This program provides a method of recognizing performance when it happens, not sometime later.  It also allows daily performance to be "rolled up" and celebrated once a month on a more formal basis.

Fourth, for best results, strive to keep the program fresh and flexible, and make changes in the program as it begins to feel stale to targeted employees.  For example, at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Massachusetts, the People Are Tops Awards include balloons tied to the person's desk, belly dancers, and a song or message delivered by a person in a gorilla suit.  The Golden Falcon Awards at Federal Express in Memphis include a gold uniform pin, a congratulatory phone call from a senior executive and ten shares of stock (recently worth about $45 a share). 

In summary, there are more effective ways to improve employee motivation, morale and initiative that are typically obtained from employee-of-the-month programs.  But if used in conjunction with other techniques--and with an awareness of potential pitfalls--employee-of-the-month programs still have a place in motivating today's employees.

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