Not Another Picnic!

When it comes to recognition, one size does not fit all.

From over the Persian Gulf, en route to a client in the Middle East: "We do a great job at employee recognition," said the Human Resource manager of a large hospital. "That's good to know," I said. "How do you go about recognizing great performers?"

"Well, we do a quarterly picnic and select the Employee of the Quarter for each department. Then there's our Christmas party, where we choose an Employee of the Year," she replied.

"How is that working for you? Have you positively impacted your employee and patient satisfaction numbers? Can you measure and quantify your employee engagement? Did your system really change anybody's behavior?"

She stared back at me in silence. Apparently I had hit a nerve. I had a pretty good idea that this meeting was over. I felt kind of bad for being too direct. It looked like my honesty had gotten me in trouble.

One-size-fits-all recognition does more harm than good. I tell Rose's story in one of my workshops. In short, it goes like this: Rose, who works for the top luxury hotel firm in the world, was helping me with a survey of their employees. I asked her how many times she'd been positively reinforced for something done well during her three years of employment at the hotel. Her eyes narrowed as she tried to remember.

"Only once. . . . I was voted . . . Best Customer Service of the Spa."

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know!" she lamented. "They never told me. Maybe it was a survey or something? But the worst part was how they surprised me in front of my peers and told them I was the best, and they weren't. Now, two of those ladies won't speak to me. It was the worst day of my life!"

To fully understand the pain this caused both Rose and her co-workers, consider this scenario: I have two daughters, Carli and Daphne. What if I pop in one day from a business trip, line them up, and say, "Hey, Carli, give Daphne a hand, 'cause she's Daughter of the Month, and you're not."

How's that going to go over? Not well.

Any time we set up one employee to win at the expense of everyone else, we have given our workplace culture a suicide pill. Competition is what we do in the marketplace, not what we do with our co-workers. Our team rises and falls based on the teams' achievements.

Hard Workers, Complainers, and Those In Between
Many managers have seen the folly of the " . . . of the Month" genre, and they've swung the positive reinforcement (R+) pendulum 180 degrees to the opposite extreme: One-Size-Fits-All- R+ Too bad they pass that valuable option right in the middle called behavior-based recognition.

(By the way, R+ is just behavioral jargon for positive feedback, reinforcement, recognition, awards, and so on. It's R+ if it increases the behavior that precedes it, and if the employee likes it.)

So our well-meaning managers have launched into a series of picnics, barbecues, T-shirt giveaways, and endless other celebrations to commemorate safety, sales, quality, and other milestones. In these systems, usually a lagging indicator (result) is rewarded, and in the case of safety, those results may have been achieved with unsafe behaviors and the suppression of injury and incident reporting. This Pandora's Box of bad habits is one reason the behavioral community often argues against incentive systems.

"Hey, the one-size-fits-all method is at least better than Employee Of The Month!" says the hospital manager.

But is it really? Not in my book. Here’s why:

As I've traveled the world speaking, I've used CAVE People to explain why one size does not fit all, because everywhere I've been, every manager has employees who are CAVE People. What's a CAVE person? My good friend Kenny Sawyer says they are "Citizens Against Virtually Everything."

Do you have any CAVE people at your company? I'll bet you do. They whine and complain. They sleep through training meetings. They break the safety rules and drag down your team. They insult your clients and bring your customer satisfaction scores down. Studies show more than 15 percent of employees fall into this category. Some put that percentage even higher.

Thank goodness, you also have people who are hard workers -- those above-and-beyond people who value delivering a safe, quality product or customer experience. The trouble is, as my friend Leo Inghilleri says, less than 2 percent of the workforce are self-motivated high performers. And the only problem with these workers is that they think everyone else is as motivated as they are, or at least they should be.

All of this means that about 80 percent of your employees fall in that no man's land of being just average performers. They are the "invisible men (and women)" when it comes time to measure what they did to make a difference.

Now, given this cross-section of the average workforce -- the above-and-beyond workers, the CAVE people, and the invisible men (and women) -- what have we done in our infinite wisdom and intelligence for some 50 years? We’ve used that tried and true One-Size-Fits-All method of recognition, like this:

"Err, excuse me, folks. . . . We would like to recognize your performance for this past quarter. Now, I know that 10 of you above-and-beyond workers have burned the midnight oil to help our company meet its goals, while 10 of you CAVE people have slept through every training meeting, broken every safety rule, and missed every deadline. Lastly, let's not forget our 80 invisible men (and women) who show up here day after day and accomplish ZERO of the company's objectives."

Now the manager holds a $100 bill over his head and announces, "So, in honor of your department's efforts, here's a $100 bonus for everyone. And we're going to have a picnic this Saturday, plus you get a free T-shirt if you show up."

A Better Approach
Wait a second!

If you adopt this one-size-fits-all method, did you just positively or negatively reinforce your 10 best workers? (Hint: The answer starts with N.)

How about the CAVE people? Did you give them positive reinforcement? Yep, you sure did. You effectively said, "Hey go out and break more safety rules, sleep through more training, and do what you've been doing some more. This money tells you it's okay in our culture to do just that."

And your 80 invisible men and women will at best remain invisible because "It doesn't do any good to work hard around here. Nobody will notice anyway. Look at those poor above-and-beyond guys. They're suckers."

The folly of one-size-fits-all recognition seems clear. Yet, it happens, day in, day out, at millions of companies around the world in the form of picnics, profit sharing, gain sharing, goal sharing, and the like. These plans sound great in the CEO's office, but they're awful when we see them at work on the front lines.

Do these initiatives change behavior? No. Do they improve performance? No. (How can they? You're rewarding something that happened in your rearview mirror.)

So my advice to anyone doing " . . . of the Month" or one-size-fits-all R+ is to just kill those programs. You're better off doing nothing.

Next, develop a system for reinforcing the right behaviors to drive the results you need.

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Bill Sims, Jr. is president of the Bill Sims Company. For more than 50 years, the company has created behavior-based recognition programs that inspire better performance from employees and increase bottom-line profits. His book "Green Beans & Ice Cream -- The Definitive Recipe for Employee Engagement, Motivation and Recognition" is based on his experience having built more than 1,000 positive reinforcement systems at firms that including DuPont, Siemens VDO, and Coca-Cola. To learn more visit

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