Simple Awards Still the Best

by Bob Nelson ©

A lot of people ask me about the best way to create an informal recognition program; that is, an atmosphere of continuous and spontaneous praisings and rewards. Probably the best way to explain such a program is through describing a successful recognition effort.

Elsie Tamayo, former Training Director for the Department of Social Services at the City of San Diego, turned around morale, pride and productivity of the training department by initiating and implementing an informal recognition program. When Elsie first started, employee morale was low and the group's identity in the organization was weak. Elsie met with the thirteen employees in her department and first asked how they wanted to be perceived by the organization. The group created its own identity as the "Training and Development Center," created a logo, and painted it on the outside and in the lobby of their building. Everyone also got business cards for the first time, with the new department logo on those cards.

Elsie then announced that the group was going to spend a half day a month as a Reward and Recognition Day (R&R Day) in which the group would come up with things they wanted to do together. In subsequent months they did such things as taking the train to Los Angeles to visit a museum, going shopping in Tijuana, going to the zoo, and so forth. They had no budget for such activities, so initially any expenses were paid for by the employees.

At each department meeting she solicited the help of one other employee to come up with some type of fun way to reward another employee in the group. For example, to announce one employee's promotion, the group made a parade through the building. On another occasion an employee was presented with an Energizer Bunny "because that person kept going and going and going, helping others when needed." In yet another instance an employee was given a toy roadrunner for consistently working fast. In addition, Elsie started each department meeting by reading letters written to her praising the department or people in it. At all times, she gave the group the latest information she had about developments in the organization.

Elsie used numbers as recognition to increase the visibility of achievements of the group. For example, the number of employees trained each month was tracked, as were cost saving ideas, and progress was communicated throughout the organization. Flip charts were hung publicly in the department, to track progress toward different goals, and "master's degrees" were awarded to trainers and managers who trained 1000 hours.

She bartered her training services with other training companies to get training slots for her group members or facilities for an off-site retreat. She also started a self-development library and positioned the use of it by her employees as a reward and privilege.

She used extensive spontaneous rewards, such as quick handwritten notes or a note on a flip chart that read, "You really handled the meeting well yesterday (with specifics and why the activity was important)" and then posted the flip chart on the person's door. She often let people come in late the next day after finishing a training session.

Once a week, every person was given an hour to meet with Elsie to talk about anything he or she wanted to discuss. Initially many of the meetings were less than ten minutes, but over time everyone came to use the full hour. Employees would discuss results from a training session and how he or she could improve, problems they were having with other employees, ways to improve their skills and career potential, etc.

She hosted a fake run "marathon" that included T-shirts, with all project members, and she awarded "records"--actual LPs with new labels and jackets--to fit the achievements of individuals in the group. The "records" were handed out during a mock marathon celebration.

All of the activities mentioned were conducted with little or no budget, and throughout employees knew they still had to put in the hours needed to get their jobs done. Within several months, the morale, excitement, pride and energy of the department skyrocketed, and recognition became an ongoing part of the department's culture.