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Human Resources

Employee Rewards: Beyond the Traditional

How institutions can creatively enhance employee performance and engagement
University Business, Nov 2009

FOR MORE THAN A DECADE, Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers University, Newark, has been organizing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender faculty and staff so students would have an advocate group when needed. They had no one on campus to turn to when homophobic incidents occurred.

Not anymore. Satter formed the RU Out Alliance and instituted LGBT studies on campus. To applaud her efforts, which also reflect the university’s goal of diversity, Satter received a human dignity award last April. “It was a powerful moment to be at this ceremony with the president of the university,” she says. “If you do it in obscurity and it just becomes part of the daily grind, it could actually make you disaffected for struggling so hard. When you get recognized for your work, it’s a bit of fuel to keep you going so you know you’re not fighting a mountain.”

Just about every U.S. college and university supports an annual awards and recognition program. The institution’s president typically hands out a plaque, shakes someone’s hand, and poses with award recipients for a photo during an afternoon reception.

Rewarding and recognizing faculty or staff requires more imagination than money.

Satter acknowledges that such programs are effective. But what about the remaining 364 days of the year? Are employees consistently recognized for above-and-beyond performance? Are they rewarded for small achievements that reflect the school’s goals? Are they being motivated to exhibit their school’s core values on a daily basis?

It’s easy enough to find those in higher ed who will tout their institution’s employee benefits or traditional incentives or rewards programs (which were introduced decades ago in the private sector). Yet when it comes to day-to-day rewards, many schools have flunked some important lessons. Numerous studies have shown the strong link between employee rewards and staff loyalty, increased productivity, and innovation.

But before deciding the reward, officials must decide what type of performance they value and want to encourage. Otherwise they could end up reinforcing mediocrity. For instance, a school needs to reward employees whose actions support its goals or demonstrate its core values, which will then motivate others to do the same. Consider Rutgers, which values interdepartmental collaboration, again. Last year, the school’s president handed out six Bridge Awards to recognize the efforts of six interdepartmental groups that accomplished specific tasks ranging from enhancing student services to coordinating an emergency management exercise.

Among groups of workers, educators are the least appreciated, according to Adrian Gostick, vice president of the employee engagement practice at Salt Lake City-based O.C. Tanner, which specializes in employee award and recognition programs.

Gostick?who also co-authored A Carrot a Day (Gibbs Smith, 2004) and The Carrot Principle (Simon & Schuster, 2009), which focus on using recognition to engage employees?says his company interviewed 200,000 working adults, including K-12 and higher ed educators, over the last decade and found this: Time and time again, this group reports that they receive very little or no recognition in their jobs. “We don’t know how to recognize individual teachers who are working with the class without sitting in there and observing them, which often becomes officious. A lot of times leaders in higher ed will say, ‘We’re a government run entity, we don’t have a lot of money for recognition, every penny counts, ?’so they won’t put a lot of money toward this.”

But rewarding and recognizing faculty or staff requires more imagination than money. Consider these suggestions from Gostick:

? Family Affair: Some universities employ faculty or staff who have uprooted their family from other parts of the country or world so they can teach or work at the school. When their job performance excels, send a thank-you note or a small gift basket with a thank-you note to their home, says Gostick. The note can tell family members how much you appreciate their spouse or parent for staying late, meeting a tough deadline, or simply doing a terrific job. “Involving those whom [the employee] loves in a recognition process will be more meaningful,” he says.

? King or Queen for a Day: It’s rare to find employees who enjoy performing every aspect of their job. So for one or two days, treat them like royalty. Perform a mundane task that employees dislike. Complete some of their dreaded paperwork, says Gostick. Likewise, attend a committee meeting on their behalf or teach their class on Friday afternoon.

? Warm Welcome: Other than a few handshakes, new faculty or staff are rarely greeted warmly on the first day of work and are expected to hit the ground running. Express your appreciation for their joining your team by giving them a greeting card with supportive comments handwritten by fellow staff or faculty in the department.

Gostick also points out that employees don’t want to wait months or a year to get noticed for something they accomplished yesterday. Offering small tokens of your appreciation daily or weekly is among the best ways to motivate them. People don’t wait for a wedding anniversary to tell their spouses they love them, since “you need to show appreciation every day if you want to stay in a relationship,” he says. “The same applies to employees. If you want them to stay engaged, understand what’s important to them and let them know how vital they are. ... It’s very hard to celebrate once a year if you’ve felt ignored or beaten up all year long.”

When completing his doctoral research at the [Peter] Drucker Graduate Management Center in 2001, Bob Nelson interviewed a cross section of 40 organizations?including colleges and universities?on how they rewarded and recognized employees.

“I found the older the organization was, the more likely they were not to do it,” says Nelson, president of San Diego-based Nelson Motivation and author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, 1994). “Colleges don’t tend to be focused on performance. When they talk about it, it tends to be within the quality of education or the classroom. It’s not in their DNA.”

Ask each employee who receives an award to select two people who helped him or her earn it.

It was also common for institutions to reward staff or faculty for presence rather than achievements, he says, adding that it’s why the tenure system can be a curse. Over the past 15 years, he tracked 50 explicit behaviors that employees consider to be a form of recognition. The top 10 don’t require a dime, he says, and may even be surprising. They include involving employees in decisions that affect them, soliciting their opinions, supporting them when they make a mistake, and providing them with “big picture” information about their school.

There are other ways administrators can say thanks as well:

? Pass It Forward: Ask each employee who receives an award to select two colleagues who helped him or her earn it. Provide store coupons to hand to those two people to acknowledge their efforts. It’s “a way to pass it forward,” says Nelson, explaining that it helps employees feel the value of recognition and build a culture of appreciation.

? Getting to Know You: Ask each new employee to complete a personalized preference sheet that asks questions ranging from favorite flower to favorite food. “That becomes fodder [for] their supervisor,” he says. “Use it in a meaningful, strategic way when they do a good job.”

? Take Turns: Each week, ask a different staff member to recognize one co-worker for doing something above and beyond. The staffer also picks the reward, which can range from baking the employee’s favorite cookies to officially declaring one workday as “Sally Smith” day.

? Group Energy: At scheduled department head or faculty meetings, ask attendees to share one way they recognized someone in their department. “You can just feel the energy of the room rise,” says Nelson, reiterating what a general manager once told him. “People start bragging. Managers take notes on what [others] say.”

? Learning Curve: At the end of a staff meeting or other employee gathering, ask employees to identify two things that motivate them. Nelson says supervisors may be surprised at what they hear and can use that information later to personalize rewards or recognitions.

? Praise Barrage: Consider praising an employee who enjoys public recognition at your next staff meeting. Go around the room, asking people to make one comment to this individual about why they like him or her or how this person has helped them in the past. “If someone gets feedback on how something they did helped someone, they’re more inclined to do it again,” Nelson says.

With so many inexpensive or no-cost options, instituting rewards and recognition is easy to do, but “it won’t happen by magic,” says Nelson.

Regardless of your institution’s size, location, or culture, recognition brings out the best in employees. That’s what drives any college or university and can make it stand out above the rest.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who specializes in covering HR issues.