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Building a Real World 'Employee of the Month' Program


Joseph Fearn

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Everyone knows that having a skilled, productive, and engaged team is a critical aspect to a successful operation. For this to occur, the hiring and retaining of good workers is essential. Given the current hiring/retention environment, if you are able to onboard an employee, keeping them is another significant issue requiring sound management and smart retention policy. Employees will stay on a job if they feel the compensation they receive is fair exchange for their efforts. Of course money is a key component of overall compensation, but is not the only one. Other benefits come into play also. One of these is recognition. Having a successful employee recognition program is one way. But what makes a successful recognition program? 

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With all the different people on your team, how do you reward the high performers?

Peer Input
Teams are the fundamental building block of our workforces. I have never seen an operation that succeeds when one person is the sole driving force of the operation. Each team member’s contributions add up to the success or failure of the operation. Therefore team members should have some say in employee recognition. Allowing workers to vote gives them a voice. It does not mean direct democracy but the crew’s opinion must have some determination of recipient winner. By who they vote for the crew’s voice can give managers a sense of the spirit and ideals of our teams. It can also drive a feedback loop to demonstrate to the team that their actions matter and have tangible impact. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it allows the recipients to know their peers respect and value them. 

Authentic and Valid
Any recognition program must be seen as genuine by the team and recipients. I imagine all of us have seen situations where we wondered how did this person win? Keeping the recognition program close to the team is one way to avoid this. Our team decides, and someone from our team wins thereby reinforcing the value and esteem of the award. The award also shouldn’t be a popularity contest. Most high performing employees are well liked by coworkers but likeability isn’t the only attribute we are distinguishing. Nor can the award be given with any political or ulterior motive. Recipients win because their coworkers authentically thought they should. One other aspect of our program will be differing categories to win. We will have an overall, a person who gave the most effort (kind of a runner up) and someone who just needs a boost or a pick me up. This reflects the ups and downs of our team and recognizes that not all people are the same.

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Valuing employees for their above and beyond performance sends a message to the winning individual, and the whole team.

Worth Winning
Any effective employee of the month program must be worth winning. If this sounds transactional, well, it is. That’s what makes it powerful. So many of the actions we ask of our employees provide abstract rewards. We can see the result of our work immediately, but the benefit of organizational success and team accomplishment sometimes feels far away, disengaged from the everyday. Employee of the month is concrete and in one’s hand. So we will be giving cash prizes, at least initially. $25 for overall, $10 for runner up, and $5 for honorable mention. We will have a team meeting to announce the winners and maybe tie it to a lunch or some type of fun event. Tying this effort to training or other essential activities isn’t beneficial. We want to keep rewarding high performance the focus thereby demonstrating it is important on its own. We may also look for some smaller giveaways like swag or tools to go along with the cash prize.

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Putting money where your mouth is to reward employees sends a valuable message.

Enhances Team Ideals and Aspirations
The primary driver behind an employee recognition effort is to boost team performance of both individuals and the team as a whole. There are other ways of achieving team improvements but utilizing many different approaches in concert will hopefully create overlapping benefit and prevent missed opportunities. Employee recognition is only one piece of the puzzle. Highlighting the reasons a person won and tying it back to overall principles of the team is a useful teaching tool. Briefly repeating the core values of your operation communicates the team values. However, it is important to note that the overarching goal of this recognition is rewarding worker performance. Conveying team goals and ideals is implied and understood. Pushing this aspect of the reward risks coming across as manipulating or disingenuous and should be appropriately avoided.

...the overarching goal of this recognition is rewarding worker performance.

Reward Your Best
Our employees are the backbones of our operations. While they work with us voluntarily, they do not all work for the same reasons, nor value the benefits of their jobs in the same way. I suggest that valuing, and therefore rewarding, our best employees is smarter than focusing on improving our mediocre employees. Don’t misread me. I am not saying abandon your average employees, nor stop investing in them. I am saying that putting a bit more into your stars is more valuable, and easier, than lifting those who are not actively seeking improvement on their own. We do need the employees who just want to punch the clock and then go home. But, recognizing your stars in a real word method is a great way to appreciate team leaders, and promote better performance by all your team members. 

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