The Art of Meaningful Recognition

Good programs often promote both individual and group behaviors.

THAT which gets measured often gets done, which helps explain why safety programs have become such a part of American business. Most companies can identify how much they pay for insurance and lose to injuries, damaged equipment, and downtime--not to mention the unmeasurable psychological effects on morale caused by a serious accident. Safety programs offer a clear return-on-investment not always achievable in other types of employee initiatives.

One major challenge: Many of the people in charge of safety programs are operations managers who may or may not have had experience developing safety initiatives based on sound research on what works and doesn't work.

This article includes the practical steps for building more effective programs based on extensive research on incentive programs entitled "Incentives, Motivation, & Workplace Performance," published by the International Society for Performance Improvement. The paper reported on dozens of years of research on incentive and motivation programs, and also surveys conducted at hundreds of U.S. corporations. Researchers found properly structured programs could improve performance by as much as 44 percent in teams and 25 percent in individuals, but with a major caveat: Do it wrong, and the program will fail. Here are some of the key findings related to building more effective safety programs.

Create a campaign. As explained below, research suggests people change behavior as a result of many factors. Addressing safety as an internal marketing issue, much as marketers use campaigns to address external audiences, helps make sure your program addresses issues you can control and is structured so you can measure it and change it to address new situations or objectives.
The campaign should include a marketing plan with objectives, tactics, budget, roles and responsibilities, timelines, and return-on-investment measures.

Set clear goals. Your organization will have a better way to gauge results, and your employees will have a clearer mission, if you precisely identify what you want to accomplish in numeric terms. Make sure the goals are set high enough for people to reach, but not so high that they give up.

Get buy-in. People engage when they believe in the mission; one way to foster belief is to involve employees in setting the goal and identifying the steps necessary for success. Professionally facilitated employee focus groups can help identify potential problems management isn't aware of. Consider having each employee enroll in your safety program so that they feel more engaged.

Consider a team approach. Safety frequently involves cooperation; if so, you may want to add a team element to your program. People working side by side can provide another set of eyes to help prevent problems and should be encouraged to work cooperatively. Good programs often promote both individual and group behaviors.

Communicate. People can't change their behavior if they don?t know which behaviors to emphasize. Your program should include vigorous multi-touch communications, potentially including meetings, e-mail newsletters, and print newsletters, to make sure people know the goals, what they have to do, and how well they and the organization are proceeding toward its safety goals.

Take into account task value. People pay less attention when they see little purpose to an activity. Making people feel engaged in their roles and giving them latitude to find better ways to do their jobs will increase the chances that people will pay attention. Task value also can be enhanced by making people feel appreciated for their contributions.

Consider the role of emotion. Employees who are bored and disgruntled are less likely to focus their attention on safe practices. Include in your programs fun ways to get attention and break the monotony, such as impromptu parties, atta-boy recognition, or other creative ways to generate laughs and positive buzz. Your newsletters and meetings provide a great avenue for shaking things up a bit.

Understand the need for support. Research and common sense compellingly point to the innate need for appreciation; employees lose interest if their best efforts go unnoticed. Make sure your program includes meaningful recognition for accomplishment that is clearly distinguished from compensation. You want your people to focus on safety because it's good for them, their colleagues, and the organization, not because they stand to pocket a bonus. Many companies use recognition and non-cash rewards--often these are chosen based on the demographics of the employees--to demonstrate their appreciation for success and generate buzz.

Make it fair. Rewards and recognition backfire when they become expected, trivialized, or deemed arbitrary or unfair. Research clearly shows that tournament programs, those that reward only a select, pre-determined number of people, underperform so-called open-ended programs that provide recognition to everyone who achieves a goal. Consider using a program that combines both, but always provide something for everyone who achieves a goal.

Carefully consider your rewards and recognition. What you offer as recognition makes a powerful statement about you and your company; recognition that shows a personal understanding of each recipient, much like a gift to a friend, powerfully communicates and reinforces a bond. The goal of rewards and recognition is not necessarily to motivate--people should have an intrinsic desire to work safely--but to draw attention to key goals and critical actions, foster feelings of support, introduce fun into the workplace to break up monotony, and help make sure people actually read communications and training information you send them.

Unless you want employees to confuse your safety initiatives with compensation or expect the opportunity to achieve rewards and recognition each year, steer clear of cash awards. Non-cash awards can have the same impact without becoming expected year after year or raising issues about compensation.

Measure the right things. Your goal is to lower the number of accidents and injuries, not to give employees an incentive to under-report incidents. Safety programs should have up to three performance criteria: one that focuses on the goal (e.g., staying below a certain level of accidents or injuries) and maybe two others that measure compliance with safety procedures. By promoting safe behaviors and measuring compliance, you focus employees on how they will achieve the goal, not just the goal itself. This improves the chances they will adjust their behavior, rather than attempt to cheat by under-reporting.

Monitor the campaign. Watch both for quantitative and qualitative signs that your campaign is on track. If you are measuring three different performance measures, do the results correlate (e.g., has compliance increased and number of accidents decreased)? If the results don't synchronize with the behaviors, you've got a problem that perhaps could be addressed sooner rather than later.

Analyze the results. By having three sets of program measures, your company has significant data related to return on investment. Beyond being able to identify cost savings in terms of lost employee time, downtime, damaged equipment, and insurance costs, you also can watch the correlation between compliance and results to learn more about the types of training, communication, or rewards and recognition needed to achieve the desired results over time.

Present with passion. Sincerity and recognition go a long way toward making people feel appreciated for their effort and for making others mindful that management cares.

Ask about the tax benefits. Lawmakers apparently saw enough advantages in the use of safety programs that the tax laws create benefits for companies using qualified programs. These rules enable companies to give certain employees higher awards on a tax-free basis, if the programs obey certain rules.

Safety is a way of life. Utilizing targeted internal campaigns that address the key elements of human behavior will go a long way toward achieving goals in measurable ways that make sense to management.

This article appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the January 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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