When a Work Reward Is Totally Unrewarding

Companies that give lousy tokens of appreciation often engender animosity.

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Few people would turn down money of any amount. And most people want recognition that they've gone above and beyond on some project. Because of this, many companies have "reward" programs where a manager or other employee can grant a cash reward to someone for a job well done. These are usually small rewards, and, for the most part, they seem to work well.

Except when the reward given isn't proportionate to the effort given.

A friend called me tonight and shared with me that she had received one of these monetary rewards. For months, she and her team had been working horrendous hours, frequently until 2 a.m. The project was a huge success, and rewards were promised.

Her reward was added to a regular paycheck and was small enough that her husband, who takes care of the financial aspects of their life, didn't even comment on her "increased paycheck."

"I would have rather gotten nothing," she said.

In theory, that makes no sense. At the end of the day, after taxes, she had enough money to buy pizzas and soda for her family. That's not a bad thing. What was a bad thing was the implication from her boss: "We value your 80-hour weeks and successful project as much as you might value a pizza with extra cheese!"

It's the comparison where the problem comes in. In this case, a thoughtful E-mail to the department praising her and her team's efforts might have been a better choice. Some comp days would have been a nice accompaniment to the E-mail.

Instead of feeling rewarded, she feels like the company doesn't care. This isn't an isolated case. Another friend took on the bulk of a coworker's responsibilities when the coworker quit. My friend asked for a promotion to recognize her increased work load. Instead, she got a $50 gift certificate.

"Of course, I spent it," she said, but she was bitter about it.

In order to avoid giving the nonrewarding reward, managers need to make sure rewards are proportionate to the effort. Yes, I realize you can't just start throwing $10,000 at random employees, but if you are limited by company policies, make sure your employee knows how much you appreciate her efforts. Evaluate if she is being fairly compensated for the efforts and, if not, work with HR to develop an accurate job description and pay scale.

Public recognition will go further than a $50 gift certificate. So, too, will a day off. Put all three together (money, recognition, and comp time), and you may have a reward program that actually rewards.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources Certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.

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