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Fresh Ideas for Employee Recognition

It may be hard to admit, but no one cares much about who the employee of the month is. Here are other ways to thank a team member who goes the extra mile or lends a helping hand.

By Allison Torres Burtka

Everybody likes getting recognized for a job well done. But sometimes the “Employee of the Month” award and other traditional types of recognition can seem stale or forced. Even worse, they might seem unfair, as if the CEO or department directors are playing favorites.

But some organizations have found ways to recognize employees for being great at what they do without following the same old pattern—and while handing the reins over to employees from every level of the association. Here are a few examples that may spark an idea for your workplace.

When we receive unsolicited feedback from a client or peer company about something a DelCorian has done to exceed expectations, we put it up for all to see.

—David Coriale, president, DelCor Technology Solutions

An actual “lifesaver” award. Professional Association Services uses this—a big, white lifesaver ring that hangs on the winner’s door or cube wall—to recognize employees who have helped their colleagues. “Rules are that it has to go to someone outside your department who has done something that is not part of his or her job,” says Douglas Kleine, CAE, president of the association management company. “It breaks down silos and rewards cooperation. Typical deeds are helping with a mailing, solving a computer problem (as a peer helper, not as IT), and picking up work of a sick employee.” The monthly winner picks the next month’s winner.

An achievement award from one staff member to another. Every month at the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation staff meeting, one staff member receives the Torch Achievement Award. He or she then passes the torch to someone else the following month. “The reasons vary from [helping with] specific tasks to [being] simply positive and helpful in the office,” says Stephen Campbell, COO of AAMI. One example is “a staff member who is new, energetic, and has worked to increase membership retention.” The winner gets a trophy to display, plus a $25 gift card. The award doesn’t have to be for the biggest achievement of the month. And the next winner selected must work in a different department.

A wall of appreciation. DelCor Technology Solutions created a comic-book-style display with a superhero theme, dubbed the “Diggin' the DelCorians” wall. “When we receive unsolicited feedback from a client or peer company about something a DelCorian has done to exceed expectations, we put it up for all to see,” says DelCor President David Coriale. “The small storyboards rotate and move frequently, so it's always worth a visit to the wall when team members are at the office.” The wall is situated near the entrance, so everyone walks by it, and staff notice when a new entry goes up. “It fits the culture and personality of our organization,” Coriale says, adding that “visitors always seem to say, ‘We're going to copy that.’”

The Indiana CPA Society uses a similar approach. On a white board with magnets, employees post notes acknowledging good work or thanking a colleague for help; emails from members praising staff also go up on the board. At the end of the month, the society holds a random drawing to select a “winner” who gets time off, and at the end of the year, the monthly winners are put into a drawing for a cash prize. “It doesn't feel gimmicky at all. People really like to publicly acknowledge one another, and since it's a random drawing, no one gets their feelings hurt,” says Jennifer Briggs, CAE, senior vice president and COO. “We've been noted as a ‘Best Place to Work’ for several years, and this is usually cited by our staff as something they appreciate.”

A gratitude shout-out. During staff meetings at the National Strength and Conditioning Association, staff can give a “gratitude shout-out,” briefly thanking someone who has worked with them, acknowledging a successful project completion, or sharing why they enjoy working at the organization. It “reinforces a culture of teamwork and camaraderie,” says Scott Douglas, NSCA’s senior director of membership and business development. “It has been pretty organic and, because it’s not formally tied to any kinds of tangible incentives, seems more authentic.” Out of a staff of 65, three or four people usually speak up.

Some of these programs include monetary rewards, and others don’t. But they all allow input from a range of employees and others, so the recognition is coming not just from the top down. Allowing employees to thank each other in fun ways can build goodwill at work.

“I feel the effort is worthwhile because it’s always easier around the water cooler to be negative rather than positive,” Douglas says. “Building a positive work culture takes practice and reinforcement.”

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Email: [email protected]

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