10 Things That Your Employee Incentive Program Says About You

You probably don’t think about it too much.

When you start a recruitment effort you look at your benefits package and whether or not you offer a competitive salary. Maybe you spend time pitching some of the fringe benefits like a company car, prime parking spaces, free lunches or snacks, or a discount to a local health club. Another thing to consider is what kind of employee incentive program you offer and what it says about you.

Employees consistently say they want an employer to say a simple thank you. Your incentive program is a way to do that. If you don’t offer a program or let your program lag, it says a lot about you as a manager and what you think about your employees.

Here are 10 things that your employee incentive program says about you, both good and bad:

1. You don’t care

The one thing that can really drive employees crazy is the feeling that management just doesn’t care.

When management is so far removed from the day-to-day lives of the employees, it appears that the ups and downs of an average employee don’t matter. This disconnect creates a gulf between employees and management and, over time, it becomes difficult to motivate employees.

If you have no incentives program, or one that is out-of-date or poorly managed, this is the image you are sending.

2. You do care

This may seem logical, but it’s worth mentioning all on its own. Giving employees an incentive program lets them know that you see the work they are doing and that you appreciate it.

Someone who’s new to the company, or in the process of being recruited, is certainly going to appreciate that, and it might very well weigh into their thinking when they are pondering your offer.

3. You are out of touch

It’s a common complaint among employees. The people who sit in the cubicles day in and day out feel that no one upstairs is listening to them, never considers their opinions or thoughts, and has completely lost touch with the average employee.

If you have an old and out-dated incentive program that isn’t offering incentives that anyone within your company cares about, this is exactly how you will appear. At that point, your incentive program is no longer incentivizing anything.

4. You value good work

All it takes is a thank you. However, just saying thank you probably won’t work forever.

Creating an incentive program, or adjusting your existing one so it is in alignment with the latest incentives trends or with the core values of your employees and the company, shows that you value them and their work. Not doing that is like offering someone a car and then, when they meet the requirements of the offer, you show up with a clunker.

If your incentive program is old and not administered with any enthusiasm, then it appears if you could care less about employee effort and they will soon stop making the effort. Make the incentive program worthwhile and the company will ultimately reap the benefits.

5. You are not paying attention

If employees have previously registered complaints, or shown no interest in participating in your existing incentive program, they are trying to tell you something. If you have hundreds of clocks or plaques sitting unclaimed in a closet somewhere, that might be a hint that no one values the reward. If you hand out a catalog to employees when they reach a goal and never get an order form back from them, there is a problem.

If you want to be seen as paying attention to the people who work so hard for you, it might be time to make some changes and adjustments to what you currently offer and how you administer the program.

6. You treat employees fairly

A poorly run incentives program is just as bad, if not worse, than not having one at all.

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If it’s run the right way then the rules are clear and understandable. If it is confusing and people claim they qualify for a reward when they do not, then something’s wrong. People will start to feel as if they are not being appreciated and they are not being treated fairly.

7. Employees are more than just numbers

If you think that just offering a job and a salary to employees should be enough incentive, you are not thinking long term about the happiness of your team.

During economic downtime, this cutback may be necessary to keep your company profitable. However, you may soon find yourself standing in an empty office as soon as the economy turns around. Even if you need to cut back on your program, it’s better to do something on a small, yet sincere scale than do nothing at all.

8. You are focused on the wrong things

There is one school of thought that says a business should always be focused on the customer and always be selling. There is something to be said for this, since if you do not sell, you have no company.

However, there is another school of thought that says you should focus on your employees first. They are on the front lines, answering the phone, greeting clients and selling the products. If they are unhappy, it’s almost impossible to motivate them and it can affect how they appear to your customers.

9. Hard work is rewarded

If your sales team sets a new record in sales, you want to be sure you give them a reward that matters and shows how much you appreciate the extra effort.

If the rewards your company offers are lackluster, good luck getting anyone to muster up the effort to set a new sales record the next time you really need them to make that push. By showing that hard work is rewarded, your employees will know that it’s worth working those extra hours.

10. You know your employees as people

When you set out to find just the right reward for an employee, it shows them that you know who they are outside the office.

One of the best examples of this is a gift card for that person’s favorite restaurant, store, or for an activity that you know they will appreciate, like a sporting event or a lift ticket to their favorite ski mountain. Another good example is a customized vacation tailored to their interests, hobbies and wants.

If you just hand out envelopes with a check inside, it seems impersonal and can get lost in the day-to-day shuffle.

There is no magic formula to designing incentive programs that will guarantee your company will have a banner year. However, keeping these 10 things in mind when you set about creating or maintaining a program will help ensure that whatever program you do have has some kind of return on investment. Ultimately, an employee incentives program benefits everyone, even you.

Jennifer Vecchi is the Manager of Individual Incentives and Recognition Programs at Atlas Travel in Milford, MA, where she is responsible for supporting her client’s recognition programs and sales contests.

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7 Comments on “10 Things That Your Employee Incentive Program Says About You

  1. I’m not sure if you’re you are talking “incentives” or “recognition” – two very, very different things.  Seems that you’re mixing the two in this discussion.

    1. Thanks Paul for your feedback! Actually, I am speaking about both. I develop incentive programs AND recognition programs for my clients and I wholeheartedly agree that there is a difference between the two. Yet, many of the principals and suggestions I proposed apply to both kinds of programs. So whether you are running an employee recognition program or a sales incentive, it’s still pretty important to practice the steps I mentioned!

      1. After reading the article and comments, I think Paul is spot on, and I would like to add to his comment – this is more directed towards being a good manager by using recognition.  Recognition can be from various sources – thank you notes, small gifts, anniversary trips, etc. – all are written about in various books and blogs.  I think your first two points drive home the majority of the message to managers – either care or not.  If you choose the latter, please do not manage anyone other than yourself.  Confusing recognition and incentive is dangerous, and will continue to be, as we struggle to demonsrate the difference.

  2. I agree with Paul that recognition and incentive need to be differentiated and defined, and both are an important part of your total rewards package. The points you raise make an important case for day-to-day recognition. If managers and employees are engaged in a culture that values appreciation on a regular basis, companies can avoid a lot of the pitfalls you mention. 

    1. Thanks Cori for your insight. Day-to-day recognition is certainly the best way to make sure your incentive or recognition program is speaking highly of you as a manager as well as the company in general. A good communication plan is key. You could have a stellar program in place, yet lack of communication can thwart your efforts and make it appear that it’s not too important. That’s why I love Social Media – it’s becoming much easier to get your message heard, and to receive timely feedback from your peers.

  3. Jennifer, your #6 and #8 points are especially right on.  I have talked to hundreds of organizations and heard horror stories on how their good intentions went horribly wrong.   The result was that their employee incentive program actually led to a decrease in performance and morale.  The most common mistake I come across is the disconnect between the incentive program and the company objectives.  In my opinion, the first step when designing an employee incentive program, is to determine what truly is important to the organization.  Once you do that you can create a program that targets and reinforces goals and behaviors that are in line with the organizational goals and values.

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