The Secret Happiness Committee

by Bob Nelson ©

July 1, 2003

Although Perkins Coie LLP, a law firm of 450 lawyers based in Seattle, has seen tremendous success over the years, company management is far-sighted enough to know that there is always room for improvement. In 1996, the firm conducted a job satisfaction survey. In the 40-person finance department, the score was only “average” — lower than expected.

In response, Perkins Coie's director of finance and CFO Wayne Robinson created a “book club” with a focus on leadership. The group read books, discussed a selected chapter each month, and tried to apply the author's concepts in a real-world setting. Included in this group of books was 1001 Ways to Reward Employees. According to Carla Stroud, a project manager at Perkins Coie, reading the book started a chain of events that has not only improved morale in the finance department but also productivity.

“We decided that we didn't do enough to thank employees,” says Stroud. “We came up with the idea of a Happiness Committee — I think the book called it a Morale Committee. Another supervisor from payroll and I asked people privately to participate. You see, it's a secret committee. At first we just gave people a basic outline of what we were doing and asked whether they'd like to join. And some really enthusiastic people jumped on board, but no one knew all five of the members. In fact, no one knows even now.”

Employees never know what to expect from the Happiness Committee, or when to expect it. The group's first formal act was to fill plastic Easter eggs with candy and wrap each one in a Dilbert cartoon in which artist Scott Adams made reference to a happiness committee. The group has come up with some other creative activities, including:

  • The plant challenge. On Earth Day, finance employees received plants, bags of dirt, and fertilizer, with a prize for whoever could grow a plant the most successfully.
  • A picnic lunch on a ferry across Puget Sound. Employees were required to bring permission slips signed by a co-worker allowing them to attend.
  • A Veteran's Day celebration at which the department's five veterans were honored by their 35 co-workers with a potluck lunch, complete with red, white, and blue balloons and a sheet cake.

However, for a rewards program to be effective, it's not enough to come up with a creative idea once in a blue moon. Rewards and recognition programs have to be sustained over a longer period. According to Stroud, “It's interesting — it's like a garden. You've really got to tend it. And if you don't do something for a while — it's not that people feel entitled, but they notice.”

All this fun — and an improved work environment — has not gone unnoticed. First off, followup surveys have shown major jumps in productivity and satisfaction. Secondly, other departments are following suit. “It has taken awhile,” says Stroud, “but people in some other departments have noticed what we've done. Someone on the operations department staff said to me, ‘You people seem so happy down there.’”