You are here

Human Resources

Thankful Encounters

In positively recognizing employees, it's the small things that count.
University Business, Sep 2006

With bigger budgets and higher profits, corporate America sometimes outshines higher education in areas such as compensation. But here's one area where they're on even turf: creatively rewarding and recognizing employees.

Companies typically recognize productive workers with all sorts of material rewards that would leave some professors drooling. However, universities and colleges have achieved similar results by changing focus. Oftentimes, it's the small things that people do or say that creates the biggest impact.

"Universities face the same thing as corporate America," explains Bob Nelson, an HR consultant and a professor at the University of California, San Diego. "We think the things that are really important are the things we spend money on, but all evidence points to the fact that it's the way you treat people, the way you show they're important and value what they did."

Employees share the basic need to feel important, involved, included, and acknowledged.

So it's the intangible things that count. Nelson says the No. 1 predictor of tenure of employees in any industry is the relationship that they have with their immediate supervisors. Likewise, his research has shown that employee praise is among the top 10 staff motivators.

It doesn't take much to praise an employee. Saying a few words in the hallway. Maybe circulating a thank-you letter from a student or at staff meetings, or inviting people to praise any co-worker for a job well done.

Nelson, also author of 1001 Ways to Reward Employees (Workman Publishing, 1994), says employees are all human and share the basic need to feel important, involved, included, and acknowledged when they've done a good job.

"The need for pats on the back is real, especially in an educational environment where there's a higher calling," says Nelson, adding that employees take pride in their contributions and want to be recognized for them.

Some reward programs reflect the organization's culture. Take the Maricopa Community Colleges Foundation in Phoenix, which values community involvement. Each year, it presents five high achievers-who can be faculty, staff, or administrators-with a $1,000 scholarship that is awarded to a student. The employee names the scholarship, sets the criteria, and can sit on the scholarship-selection committee, if desired. The foundation then announces the employee's name in an e-mail that's distributed to all 5,000 employees throughout the foundation and college district.

"You have to thank people, thank them often, and find creative ways to thank them," says Alma Padilla, director of operations at the foundation. She believes this program not only recognizes employees for their accomplishments, but also sends a message about the importance of helping people in the community.

Other programs honor a school's entire workforce. For five days in June, the 5,000 employees at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque participate in a series of events during staff appreciation week, says Karin Retskin, administrative coordinator for the school's staff council.

Although the activities vary from year to year, all events are held during lunchtime. For example, employees who moonlight as artists can display and sell their creations-anything from paintings to pottery to quilts-in a makeshift gallery on campus. Besides an opening reception, there's also a people's choice award, which is covered by the local newspaper. Retskin reminds staff about the show via e-mail, mentions the names of the school's retirees who will be gallery sitting, and encourages everyone to stop by.

On another day, a book exchange is held. Staff who bring used books from home enter the event one hour before doors open for remaining staff. Employees can take as many books as they want, she says, explaining that some books are donated by the local Friends of the Library and are sold for $1 each with the proceeds benefiting a library in Ghana.

Staff and faculty at Johnson & Wales send "campus that cares"
cards to each other.

The week's activities also include a free outdoor concert and a health focus day with free yoga demonstrations, back massages, and a group hike around campus.

"We do all of this to celebrate staff," says Retskin, adding that most universities could mirror these same events. "We get wonderful feedback from staff who absolutely love it and want to know what the next day's event is. We encourage managers to work with their staff to come to some of these events without [sacrificing] lunch hours or annual leave."

The total cost is only $2,000. But if that's still too high for your coffers, consider what other schools are doing for a lot less money:

Johnson & Wales University in Denver hands out "campus that cares" cards to each of its 123 full-time staff and faculty. Slightly bigger than a business card, one side states either, "Thank you for caring about our students," or "Thank you for caring about our campus," according to Elaine Gorton, the school's Human Resource representative. On the front side is space for a personalized message.

People who receive these cards from co-workers bring them to HR, where they're all placed in a big basket for multiple drawings. Every month, one winner receives a free designated parking space for one month. In February, which is the school's random acts of kindness month, four more cards are drawn. These employees each receive a $25 gift certificate to a local grocery store. Total cost of the program: $200.

Wake Forest University (N.C.), gives employees on their anniversary date a card from the dean along with several helium balloons in the school's colors, gold and black. The program, which began in January, is economical and offers a personal touch, explains Dusty Donaldson, associate director of External Relations.

Pace University (N.Y.) awards each of its 3,000 employees two paid days off each year for community activities. Called the Staff Centennial Volunteer program, it values staff in a different way, says Yvonne Ramirez-Lesce, vice president of Human Resources. "It recognizes that staff are an important part of our community, that they're integral to our learning process and to achieving our strategic goals," she says. "It values their contributions as individuals. That's kind of special."

Western Connecticut State University established a selection committee that reviews employee nominations for special achievement. Staff members nominate each other. One person, chosen every quarter, receives a plaque at a public reception, which is followed by a private luncheon with the school's president and 10 guests of the winner's choice, according to Fred Cratty, director of employee relations at the school.

Then, at the end of the year, the selection committee and president choose one person out of the four to attend a two-hour ceremony, called the Governor's Service Award, held at the state capital in Hartford. Recipients also receive a videotape of the ceremony and pictures of themselves with the governor.

Virginia Wesleyan College hands out between 25 and 50 M&M awards (which stand for meaningful and much appreciated) each year-for above and beyond performance. Recipients are nominated by peers and given a letter explaining why they won this award, an M&M certificate and a bag of M&M candy from Human Resources. The school's president and the employee's supervisor also write a note of thanks, adds Barbara Fried, the college's director of Human Resources.

Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., has created trading cards for staff. A cartoonlike drawing of the employee is on the front along with name and title. The back tells how long the person has held the position, identifies the department, offers a visual location of the person's office, and gives an assigned team number. The college also hosts Good Morning Allegheny, a monthly continental breakfast for all employees. They introduce themselves, describe their office functions and share how they help serve the broader community. "For the entire college staff, I think it helps in creating a regular way for employees to connect with each other outside of regular duties and meetings," says Adam Bratton, assistant director of public affairs.

University of Michigan in Ann Arbor employees can nominate their peers and employee teams three times a year for good deeds or accomplishments. A selection committee reviews all of the nominations and selects up to a dozen employees and five teams who are the best of the best. Each person's or team's photo is featured on the university's website along with a brief article about their accomplishment that's written by the school's faculty or staff.

Look around and you'll find plenty of other ideas. It doesn't take much to make employees feel good about their efforts.

The only way you're truly going to know what employees want is to ask. Conduct a survey. Or, have supervisors ask new employees about what motivates them or how they prefer to be recognized. While some may embrace verbal praise at an awards ceremony, others may feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by it and prefer a letter or quiet pat on the back. Just remember-the way in which you acknowledge someone's performance can be just as important as the actual reward.

Think about the last time your boss or peers sincerely complimented your work or job performance. It's nearly impossible to place a monetary amount on how that made you feel. By exposing more employees to those feel-good moments, don't be surprised if you end up with a happier and more loyal workforce.

Carol Patton, a Las Vegas-based freelance writer, specializes in covering human resources issues.