When You Reward, Make It About the Employee – Not the Employer

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If you have ever had occasion to reward talent there is one question you must ask before you can begin to answer the question of how to reward high performers:

What motivates the employee you’re looking to reward?”

Different things motivate different people

Is the person you’re rewarding an hourly employee? Salaried? Commission based?

If it’s a money-motivated type, cash is typically king.

Do you think that acknowledgement at a company wide function, newsletter, or some other public display (“talent on parade”) is enough, or even what they care about? Maybe it’s cash, paid time off, airline tickets and hotel to someplace they want to go, etc. Be creative.

What do THEY want?

You probably already have an idea of how much money you’re going to spend to reward the individual, so ask.

If you want to reward someone, give something they desire. This not only makes them happy, but also will help you retain them because you’ve made the effort to make the reward about them.

I worked for a search firm for nine years. Every year there was a quota club trip for employees achieving at least 100 percent of quota.

The two principals always decided where we would go. It was typically within a 3 – 4 hour flight from New York and it was five days and four nights. It was typically a beach-side resort. The company paid for our flights, hotel room, and 1 company dinner.

Make it about YOU and suffer the consequences

It was always a very expensive resort where the employees paid for each and every meal, except the one “company” dinner. This would usually add up to several hundred dollars in meals/drinks. It always irked me that they’d fly us to some expensive resort and expect us to pay for everything outside of our flight and hotel room. To me, this was no “reward.”

I did enough traveling on my own that I didn’t really care about these trips. I usually only joined the trip every other year because the locations were often to places I had no interest in visiting.

Being an avid scuba diver I only had interest in going on a trip if there was excellent diving. If I went someplace I wasn’t interested in I’d just spend my time on the beach tanning and drinking, and I only have so much interest in that.

The president of my company used to get upset when I decided not to go. His opinion was that this was a gift and a bonding activity for the achievers. Did it ever occured to either of the two partners that some of their employees might not care about “bonding?” Did they care that those of us who wanted to have relationships with our work associates already did?

A reward that’s not all that rewarding

These questions are rhetorical because they were really only concerned about what they wanted. They figured they were giving us a flight and hotel at a nice place and that was all they had to do.

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The other thing that chapped my rear was that they would only pay for a guest if you were married, or if they determined, arbitrarily, if you were in a “significant” relationship. Really?! That set me sideways for the entire time I was with them. I mean, who were they to decide if my relationships were significant enough? In my world you either pay for every employee’s “date” or pay for none of them.

Over the years, the president would periodically ask me what would motivate me. I’d always say, “money.” Give me money instead of a trip so I can use it how I want. Give me more than 50 percent of my bookings. He’d always answer that they didn’t do it that way — which showed that it was all about him, not his employees.

I quit after nine years with them — probably 2-3 years later than I should have — but that’s water under the bridge. I didn’t think they were bringing me enough value to warrant them keeping 50 percent of my bookings, so I left and made 100 percent.

I might have stayed had they brought me to 75 or 80 percent. After all, isn’t 25 percent of something better than 50 percent of nothing? Now, all their employees have gone and they are pretty much out of business. It’s just the two partners trying to make a living for themselves with no help from any employees.

Make a case

You may be thinking that your company does things in a particular way and you have no control over it. Do NOT be a victim of your circumstances.

Do be a private eye and a consultant. Reach out to your performers on the QT if you have to. Ask them what motivates them. Ask them if the “right” reward would encourage them to stay with your company.

Ask them what ever makes sense to you given the situation. Then, go to your management and make a case. Use dollars and sense to make your case that a company that retains its performers makes more money in the end.

Moral of the story

Make the reward about the employee, not the employer. You will find that this will be enough to keep some of your best people, which will keep your revenues up and your replacement expenses down.

Carol Schultz is a pioneer in the recruitment process optimization and career strategy industries. She has built a client base of countless individuals and myriad companies from early stage pre-IPOs to publicly traded companies. She uses 20 years of recruiting experience where she honed her industry expertise and formed an intrinsic understanding of successful recruiting processes and the critical nature of alignment with corporate goals and objectives.

She takes a thoughtful approach to talent and focuses all her time on assessing, analyzing, and deploying recruiting strategies and processes that work. Her consulting and training company, VerticalElevation.com offers a fresh approach to talent strategy and incorporates the executive management team’s core values so they permeate every aspect of the hiring process. As an advisor and coach to corporations, she makes a stand for best practices to attract and retain the best and the brightest.


9 Comments on “When You Reward, Make It About the Employee – Not the Employer

  1. Word of caution – people are notoriously bad at articulating (and even knowing) what is their best reward.  90% of the time when you ask they say cash.  Cash is not a great award even if we say we want it.  While I agree with the premise – target incentive rewards appropriately, I would not simply ask people what they want.

    My kids want ice cream for breakfast every day but I don’t give it to them.  If your employees said they only want cash – would you do it?

  2. After 40 years in this business I can honestly say that you are both right!  Cash would be a good alternative to many awards if the recipient would use it for something as a reward to themselves, but unfortunately much of it gets mixed up in veryday life and goes up with the pile of bills.

    Your point on incentive or recognition travel is closer to the rule than the exception.  What happened to you happens way to often in this business.  I’ve seen many people check out of hotels with bills they just couldn’t afford.  Instead of an experience that should have been a positive memory it goes down as a negative.  I wish more employees were like you and tell the the bosses the truth

  3. @Paul:  Thanks for your comments, but I don’t think comparing rewards in business to giving your children ice cream every day makes sense.  The point of the article is to have the conversations with your employees to determine what makes sense.  Doing this in a vacuum of HR won’t work.  Make sense?

    1. Agree that working in the vacuum is a bad idea.  

      But… and it is cautionary – don’t take what your employees say as gospel.  Research shows we don’t articulate what motivates us very well… what we think we want isn’t what necessarily drives performance… and may not be the best thing for the organization.  

      My point was, regardless of what employees say – HR needs to do the right thing by the company AND the employee.  Simply taking employee input and implementing is as bad as not taking employee input at all.
      If you follow the advice you provided – take what employees say – make a case for it and sell it to management (and this is 20+ years experience and a lot of education talking)  – the program will fail in the long run.  Short run you’ll get some lift…. but in the long run it will be more problematic than it’s worth.

  4. So if you can’t ask the employees, how do you decide what will motivate them. Would an anonymous survey circumvent the fact that most employees won’t tell their managers that they don’t want to go to the fancy resort?

    1. I don’t say don’t ask – but be careful what you ask, how you ask and what you do with the info. Asking is a good way to find out what isn’t working.  However, if you ask your employees if they would rather have a crystal bowl or cash – 99% will say cash.  Then if you don’t use cash you’ve communicated you don’t really care about their input.  

      Questions I like to ask are more like:  briefly tell me about a time you felt valued… what happened?  who did it?  how did they do it?  get the context – not the simple yes/no or multiple choice answer.

      My point was that asking employees what motivates them won’t get to the issue because we don’t always know and what we think we know isn’t true.  

      It’s not about not asking – it’s about asking the right questions in the right way and then finding a way to follow through on the input.

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