Spread the Word: Smart Communication Strategies for Recognition & Reward Programs

   Don’t underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs—you can’t win a game you didn’t know was scheduled.
   It’s easy to get wrapped up in the sourcing and creativity involved with the rewards themselves, but the methods and strategy involved in driving awareness and excitement of incentive programs are crucial to employees’ participation in and happiness with the reward and recognition experience.
   There is recent research to back this up. In 2015, the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF) revealed results of a study of the total award experience using responses from 452 members of the Incentive Marketing Association, which commissioned the report.
   Debunking a myth that the award itself was the most important aspect of the entire award experience, the study showed that 12 percent of respondents claimed that type of communications was a preference driver in a large award scenario, while 16 percent said it was a preference driver in a small award example.
   When the type of award presentation—defined in the study by whether the award is presented in public or private, and by who is presenting the award—is considered as a piece of a program’s communication plan, those numbers rose to 21 percent and 25 percent, respectively. The results were consistent regardless of age, income, gender or role.
   IRF President Melissa Van Dyke said the findings were not surprising as much as empowering to those who already emphasize communications.
   “It’s vitally important to how the reward itself is received,” Van Dyke said. “That was very reinforcing to us because you can have a fantastic piece of merchandise, a wonderful product, but if the program and the award itself are not communicated correctly and in a manner that resonates with the recipient, the reward itself is going to lose value.”
   Van Dyke said people enjoy recognition, with or without prizes, so communication of incentive programs serves many functions and shouldn’t stop once the award is earned. Who notifies the winner is important, as is whether that notification is private or public, or both.
   Does public awareness occur in front of a gathering of colleagues, on a company-wide e-mail, at the dedicated incentive program website or all of the above? In the past decade, social media notice is a consideration as well. Successful programs give employees what they need to know, often, and understand that post-award communications are as crucial as the launch and motivational messaging.
   Van Dyke said that while it’s easy for incentive program administrators to be concerned with the wealth of technological ways to stay in touch, they must never forget the power of human touch.
   Don’t underestimate the value and power of constant, friendly and clear communication in recognition and reward programs.
   “We really stress not losing the value of interpersonal communications, the one-on-one, that manager or that teammate saying, ‘I see what you did, here’s why it’s important, and thank you,'” she said. “It’s not possible when we’re at the home office or different parts of the world, and that’s when technology is fantastic, but if we’re sitting right next to each other, we’re in the same locale and we work the same shift, you really can’t replace that one-on-one communication.”
   The attention paid to incentive program operations is necessary, given the investment companies make in them. In an incentive program end-user survey in early 2015, the Incentive Federation found that while most companies spend less than $50,000 on incentive programs, that number is skewed by the large amount of smaller companies.
   When broken down by company revenue, 45 percent of firms with between $1 million and $10 million spend $50,000 or less, while 24 percent lay out $100,000 or more. Those numbers shift as the revenue rises; 76 percent of companies with a least $1 billion in revenue spend at least $100,000 on rewards and recognition.
   It raises a chicken-or-egg question, but if the IRF survey (and past studies showing correlation between more frequent communication and employee participation) reflects how programs should be run, spend on communications has to be significant. It follows that the concentration on the best practices for those communications will follow.
Communication in Practice
   Those are fine theories, but how is communication handled in real life? Kelly Honrobia is a channel account manager at Fujitsu Network Communications in Dallas; she’s responsible for managing reseller partners and making sure they are always thinking about Fujitsu when they are talking to their customers.
   Honrobia lives what the research reveals. When asked how important communication is to her incentive programming, she said, “It’s essential in making the incentive successful.”
   Honrobia explained that for her missions—sales incentives focused on gaining mindshare with reseller partners—e-mail is the most effective tool. A series of e-mails leads up to a launch, she said, followed by additional e-mails once the launch begins, and a direct-mail piece that includes a small giveaway.
   She said she is sure to curry favor from upper management. “Engaging executives and making sure they are bought into the program is important,” Honrobia said. “When they forward the general e-mails that go out to the audience and add their own messages and endorsement, it is very powerful.”
   Demographic research shows differences in recognition and reward preferences among generations; for instance, millennials enjoy public award announcements and technology as merchandise. Honrobia said that also extends to use of communication channels.
   “You have to know your audience and use communication channels that they pay attention to and respond to, like e-mail, social media, videos, direct mail,” she said. “If you have a very large audience of many different demographics, you will need to utilize more channels to communicate.”
   She said she uses as a planning tool a calendar showing what messages will go out on what dates using which channels. “However, I think you also need to be flexible and ready to add or change the way you communicate,” she said. “Track your e-mail open rates. If people are not opening the e-mails, start sending direct mail or post information on internal web portals, send out fun giveaways that help serve as reminders, get time on team meeting agendas to promote the incentive, make it a contest and highlight the top three to five people who are earning the most rewards and create a video of them endorsing the program.”
   Clearly creativity is involved in Honrobia’s strategies. She also is a big fan of patience and persistence in the case of low initial participation. She says the most recent incentive she ran started off a bit slow and then picked up when her team increased the communications.
   The program sought to change partners’ behaviors so they would learn more about Fujitsu and position Fujitsu solutions when talking to their customers and rewarded sales reps for activities such as attending training, registering deals and inviting customers to visit Fujitsu labs.
   “Initially some of the reps got involved, but we needed more people to participate,” she said. “We started sending personalized e-mails to each rep every two to three days reminding them of the incentive and giving them real examples of where they could be earning their rewards.”
   After about two weeks, participation rose 78 percent, she said.
   “I’ll just say, ‘Don’t give up on the incentive if it doesn’t seem successful at the start,'” Honrobia said. “Just change the way you’re promoting it until you see the results you’re looking for.”
Communication Basics & Beyond
   Honrobia has a list of do’s and don’ts that she would share if she were training a newcomer to incentive programming:
   “Do: over communicate; make sure your communications are consistent until the very end of the incentive; use many different communication channels; get executive buy-in and have them help communicate; make your communications fun—incentives are meant to inspire; keep track of as many statistics as possible so you can also accurately communicate the results of your incentive back to the stakeholders.
   “Don’t: expect your incentive to take off from the very beginning, because incentives usually take a while to take hold; give up; taper your communications, which is hard because it’s easy as program managers to lose steam, especially if our audience is not as excited as we are.”
   Honrobia said social media has changed programming in a couple ways, for programmers and for employees. Feedback via social media has made it easier to adjust a program and its communications throughout the process, as well as enable the employee audience to promote the program to its peers.
   She mentioned technology as another boon for programmers. Hootsuite, for example, allows people to manage all social media and to disseminate messages from one place or one platform, so that using social media to promote incentives is easier, more consistent and faster.
   Honrobia also sees the economic benefits of using third party vendors to run incentive programs with software.
   “Incentive companies have pre-made, easily customizable web programs that can essentially be turned on,” she says. “Of course, you still pay for the intellectual property, but, overall, the cost to develop an incentive has decreased due to not having to create it from scratch. The incentive companies truly are the experts and they have built communications into their systems.”
The Right Tools
   These companies use software that can send automated messages such as personalized monthly statements of activity on individual reward accounts, automated periodic reminders that the program is available, and confirmations that let participants know a reward had been applied.
   Leslee Vivian is communications director for just such a company, Carlton Group Ltd., which offers software as a service (SaaS) for companies looking to farm out their incentive and recognition programs. She said the communications aspect of its cloud-based performance enhancement software product, named Power To Motivate (PTM), is essential.
   “If they don’t know about it, they can’t participate,” she said of incentive programs.
   The software brands every message and media, beginning with a welcome e-mail at the launch of each program. That message posts as a web news article on a dedicated website to which members log in to see all program-related communications. Points totals are e-mailed to members, doubling as program reminders. The software’s messaging makes suggestions for redemption based on points balance or past redemptions.
   If a company is running programs for different divisions, the software can multi-task, Vivian said, running simultaneous programs with unique branding that target different groups such as call center employees and field reps. P™ can also handle recognition programs like years of service, for example.
   Vivian said P™ leverages its technological genetics to make program participation fun. “We’re really looking to engage the members in communication, keep them excited and interested in the program,” she said. “We introduce elements of gamification, there’s games to play, there’s leaderboards, there’s tracking. They see where they are, and how they compare to other members of their team.
   “Because they can see multiple ways to earn points there’s always a motivation to keep selling or keep achieving goals that have been set for you so you can earn more points and redeem for a huge variety of rewards.”
   Mike May is president of incentive program consultants SpearOne. He believes in the power of electronic communications and social media but says non-virtual communication, like one-on-one recognition, should never be minimized. Inside his own company, for example, employees give each other handwritten notes with $10 Starbucks gift cards for small appreciations.
   Define goals; lay out a timeline; keep push communications succinct; have themes for premium products; and make communications at least 10 percent of a program’s overall budget.
   “I walk around and see in the cubicles where they’ve saved the cards that say, ‘Thank you for working late on that special project for a client of mine last week,’ ‘Thank you for the great idea,’ or ‘Thank you for extra special customer service,'” May said. “Those notes stay around longer than the couple of iced lattes they got.”
   Similarly, May said reminding employees of an incentive program with desktop items still works in a world of text messages, Facebook notifications, Tweets and e-mail blasts.
   “The premium (desktop) items are sadly sometimes squeezed out of the program, but yet they’re the most effective because a kickoff announcement that gets printed and mailed is really just going to last for that day,” May said. “People aren’t going to keep it around. If they did keep it around they’re going to file it away in a drawer and never open it again, whereas if you do a promotional product, hopefully that’s going to stay on top of their desk if it’s a desk item or a keychain, something that ties into the theme of the program that they’ll use in their personal life. It’s around and is a constant reminder. I’m a huge believer in the tangible.”
   May is not exactly old school, but he does say there is a danger of relying too much on technology-based messages.
   “There’s a place for them, we do tons of it, but they’re less effective because most people when they’re reading their e-mails sit there with their index finger on the delete key clicking as fast as a teenager plays video games,” he said. “There’s an over-rotation toward electronics. There’s an underfunding of print communications and I would say there’s even too little of the premium promotion relative to the effectiveness.
   “We recommend strongly that (electronic communication) be a parallel tactic, that it not be exclusive. To do it well, electronic communication, it needs to be graphical and if you make the investment in graphic design for e-mails the incremental cost of printing and distributing that item as a flyer is not that much money, but yet so many people don’t.”
   Investing in graphic design talent and technology is one item on May’s list of best practices. Others include: define goals; lay out a timeline; keep push communications succinct; have themes for premium products; and make communications at least 10 percent of a program’s overall budget.
   The money goes to the mouthpieces.
   “The communication is so important to ensure the incentive promotion is not the best-kept secret that the company has,” May said. “What you hate is when somebody earns a reward, you announce to them that they got the reward and their response is, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know there was a contest.’ You want to avoid your contests being the best-kept secret.”
Reprinted from Premium Incentive Products magazine


Taking a Head, Hands, Heart Approach to Recognition

To shape leaders at all levels requires an approach that encompasses thinking, doing and feeling.When the mission is to continually transform and energize a company through talented, engaged employees, leaders look for new strategies to inspire collaboration and achievement. They search for ways to make the workplace inclusive, inviting ideation and problem-solving from diverse viewpoints. To shape such leaders at all levels requires an approach that encompasses thinking, doing and feeling.

Employee recognition, with its ability to put a spotlight on top performers, is an integral part of this kind of talent management system. Even though a 2015 WorldatWork “Trends in Recognition” study said 89 percent of organizations have recognition programs in place, companies don’t always use them to their best advantage because only 1 out of 3 employees report feeling appreciated. Why isn’t the message coming through?

Effective employee recognition programs are not one-off solutions. They’re a continuous process to engage the workforce by building and strengthening relationships. For instance, most organizations offer length of service awards; the aforementioned WorldatWork study said 76 percent reward above and beyond performance. If leaders are looking for a culture shift where collaborative leadership is the norm, they should do the following:

1. Get values into employees’ heads. An organization’s core values tell people how they’re expected to behave with each other and with customers. Any recognition-sending platforms in place should have this feature. Each time an award is sent, the recognizer should emphasize the value that’s the basis for the recognition.

2. Promote an all-hands-on-deck approach. To get more people to feel leadership potential, peer-to-peer recognition can empower and celebrate collaboration. Although the trend is growing only 48 percent of companies give teammates a way to call out great work, according to “The Era of Personal & Peer Accountability: The TINYpulse 2015 Employee Engagement & Organizational Culture Report.” These crucial relationships are make-or-break when it comes to engagement as employees say their peers are the No. 1 reason they go the extra mile.

Feedback opens up a more inclusive environment where employees don’t have to wait for managers to notice their good work, and it increases accountability as peers begin to manage sideways. It also plays into millennials’ strong team orientation and desire for feedback and praise. Sent across departments, recognition builds trust, breaks down silos and turfs, improves efficiency, and enhances problem-solving and information-sharing.

3. Go for the heart. Recognition enables relationships, connecting people to their work, to their company and to each other. That comes through in what is said and in taking the time to say it. It’s the message that matters. Employees want a functionally easy way to deliver this emotional impact, and without formalizing these efforts, the ability to measure participation and prove return on investment is lost.

Recognition both rewards and creates leaders. Telling employees the right message at the right time, inspires trust and engagement, opening the door to effective collaboration, innovation and success.


AUTHOR:  Jonathan McClellan is director of employee recognition at Hallmark Business Connections.






When Employee Recognition Goes Wrong

Anyone who has ever felt ignored by their company’s “high performers” track or frustrated that only salespeople get bonuses is familiar with the curse of the failed recognition program.

According to a 2015 report from employee recognition provider Globoforce, 81 percent of companies offer some form of formal recognition program. But just having a recognition program doesn’t mean it’s working, according to Jim Hemmer, CEO of WorkStride, an employee recognition platform.

“Randomly handing out gift cards from your bottom drawer isn’t going to make a difference,” Hemmer said. Recognition initiatives are intended to make employees feel more engaged with the company and to drive specific behaviors that improve the business.

Many companies make serious errors when implementing recognition programs that cause them to have no effect — or worse, make people feel left out, undervalued or stressed from constant competition.

High-Potential Rewards

George Marc-Aurele learned this lesson the hard way when he joined digital media company CPX Interactive, or CPXi, in 2012 as its chief people officer. At the time, the New York-based firm was growing rapidly, and Marc-Aurele was brought on to help develop a more mature human resources culture and improve the overall employee experience.

At the time, the company had no formal recognition program, so one of the first steps Marc-Aurele took was to implement an end-of-the-year reward for high achievers. The idea was to reinforce the desired “performance culture” of the organization, Marc-Aurele said, but it wasn’t entirely well received.

“People were upset because some people got recognized while others didn’t,” Marc-Aurele said. However, this wasn’t all bad. “It spurred a lot of conversations about what was important to the company.”

Marc-Aurele dropped the program after the first year. Instead, he decided to work with employees to figure out what they wanted from a recognition program. He surveyed employees about the words they felt represented the CPXi culture, then formed committees to hone those words into six core values: accountability, uncommon ability to achieve, rapid adaptability, caring community, balance, and curiosity that pushes boundaries.

“It was critically important that we put the words into the language of the culture,” he said. “Otherwise it would have just been words on a wall.”

Once the values were defined Marc-Aurele returned to the idea of a recognition program, this time rolling out a game-based, peer-driven program where employees get points for demonstrating the company’s core values on a day-to-day basis and for nominating other employees for recognition. They can also get points for completing recognition challenges, like writing a blog about their achievements at the company or posting a selfie in their company T-shirt outside the office.

Moreover, employees can trade the points in for prizes, and there is an end-of-the-year raffle for a $1,000 plane ticket voucher. “It took hold really quickly,” Marc-Aurele said, adding that the prizes are less important than the opportunity to give teammates a shout-out.

Within a few months of rolling the program out, employees had given out hundreds of nominations. Marc-Aurele highlights nominees in the “Monday Missive” email the company sends out and in weekly meetings to spur ongoing participation. “People have a psychological need for recognition,” he said. “Having this program in place has made CPXi a better place to work.”

What Should Be Recognized?

Many recognition experts agree that peer-based programs can be the most successful because they address many common challenges recognition efforts face.

For instance, when employees are empowered to recognize their peers, they are more engaged with the initiative and feel value both in giving and receiving acknowledgment. It also lifts the burden from managers to be constantly looking for the right behaviors to recognize.

That all helps to make a program stick, said Kate Ondrasik, director of internal communications for Orlando Health, one of the largest health care service providers in Orlando, Florida. And that’s exactly what Ondrasik was looking for two years ago when her team was asked to come up with a replacement for the company’s outdated, management-driven recognition program. The old system was paper-based and relied on managers to recognize “champions” in the workplace. “It had a lot of problems,” Ondrasik said.

The old program, which had been in place for years, was also time consuming, requiring managers to fill out and submit paperwork for every formal recognition. Additionally, the values they were supposed to recognize were vague, making it difficult to identify specific behaviors that define a champion.

“It eventually evolved into awards being given to people for being ‘nice’ or ‘helpful,’ ” she said, and only a very small number of people were recognized every year.

This is a common problem with recognition programs, according to WorkStride’s Hemmer. When recognition programs become confusing, vague, cumbersome or not well marketed, they become a burden rather than a benefit. Ultimately, only a few managers take part and nobody really knows who’s getting rewarded or why.

“If you are going to build a reward program, it should be easy, flexible and build affinity back to the company,” Hemmer said.

Ondrasik eventually ditched Orlando Health’s old program and turned to employees to figure out how to replace it. She reached out to the company’s “team council,” which is a group of employees who apply for annual positions to help shape the company’s culture. The council in turn surveyed employees about what they wanted in a recognition program, reviewed other programs, and talked to recognition vendors to come up with a plan. It came up with a new recognition system named Applause Central.

The new program is designed to reward seven behaviors focused on things like respect, ownership and inclusion. Using the WorkStride platform, all 15,000 employees can publicly recognize each other for demonstrating any of these behaviors. Rewards vary from “kudos,” which anyone can give, to gift cards of up to $20, which managers are allotted on a monthly basis.

Because the program is run both online and through a mobile app, people are more likely to use it. “Having a mobile feature was key because most of our employees don’t sit at a computer,” Ondrasik said.

To promote the program, all nominations are posted on a digital leader board and on a scrolling news bar on the company’s intranet. Ondrasik’s team is also always looking for opportunities to promote the program through the company newsletter and in team meetings. The employee council also chooses a champion from that week’s nominees to showcase in a video interview on the company portal.

“They always have a lot of options to choose from,” Ondrasik said. For example, one week they featured several neonatal intensive-care unit staffers who used their own wedding dresses to make christening gowns for babies who wouldn’t survive. Another week they interviewed a trauma center employee who gave his shoes to a homeless patient when he got discharged.

One of the great benefits of the peer-based system is that employees are more likely to see their colleagues going the extra mile for patients. The platform gives them an easy way to acknowledge that. Ondrasik said one of the most popular features of Applause Central has been the simple thanks that anyone can hand out.

In the first 10 months, employees and managers gave out 82,815 recognitions, 88 percent of which were nonmonetary, Ondrasik said. “The data tells us that including nonmonetary awards is key to success of recognition.”

Bribes Don’t Work

Many HR leaders find that money isn’t the most valued part of employee recognition and might often just be a throwaway expense. “Gift cards and prizes feel like bribes, and you should only use bribes as a last resort,” said Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, a cloud-based goal-setting software program. “Bribes don’t change behavior, which is the whole point of recognition.”

Duggan discovered this two years ago, when BetterWorks was trying to fill a few key executive roles but couldn’t give the base salary that competing companies were offering. So he created a base-plus-bonus compensation package just for those new hires, with incentives for meeting key goals.

The rest of the company just received public recognition on the company’s social network via “cheering” and other acknowledgments given by peers and managers. The result: “The people receiving the ‘bribes’ didn’t perform any better than the people receiving cheers,” he said.

As a result, the company is phasing out all base-plus-bonus salary packages and focusing more on encouraging peer-to-peer recognition and teaching managers how to celebrate their people and provide real-time feedback that reinforces the right behaviors. “You have to pause and reflect on what you’ve accomplished before you can move onto the next thing,” Duggan said. “A lot of companies skip this step, but I think it is the lifeblood of any recognition effort.”

George Hu, founder of the social recognition platform Peer and former chief operating officer at Salesforce.com, has a similar sentiment about tying financial gains to recognition. “Giving people gift cards has no impact,” he said. “And it can be demotivating when the same people get recognized over and over.”

Instead, Hu prefers to reward people with access. As the COO at Salesforce, when he saw that an employee was going above and beyond, he invited them to sit on a management meeting or gave them opportunities for one-on-one mentoring. He also encouraged managers to do the same. “It’s more valuable because it gives them entry into a new relationship and makes other executives aware of them,” Hu said.

Managers in these situations used Chatter, the company’s peer-to-peer social engagement platform, to find employees who are frequent recipients of praise for additional mentoring. Every quarter, the leadership team invites the top 30 recipients of praise to the worldwide management meeting where they get a chance to build relationships with top executives who they might otherwise never meet.

Because these employees are chosen based on the number of acknowledgments they receive, it takes bias out of the process, Hu said. In one case, the data drew Hu’s attention to an engineer who was extremely shy and introverted but had been recognized more than 100 times in one quarter for mentoring new hires. “The recognition program helped us identify him, and now he’s being developed as a leader,” Hu said.

Hu noted that retention rates among those employees who were rewarded with access and mentoring was “through the roof,” reinforcing his belief that development and encouragement hold a lot more value than a gift card. Hu is now applying that model at Peer, which links feedback with performance and recognition.

“Recognition and feedback go hand-in-hand,” Hu said. “You have to approach them both together if you want recognition to have an impact.” While most recognition programs have some redeeming value, Hu added, putting extra time and thought into what, how and who leaders recognize can go a long way toward making these programs worth the effort.

How to Make Recognition Stick

There are a few steps talent leaders can take to be sure their recognition programs have the effect they desire.

  1. Ask employees what they want. When employees help shape the recognition program, it’s going to reflect their voice and values, said George Marc-Aurele, chief people officer at CPX Interactive.
  2. Make it social and peer-to-peer. “When people see others getting recognized, they want to get in on it, which makes it grow organically,” Marc-Aurele said.
  3. Make it easy. You want a system that allows employees to give recognition at the click of a button, said Kate Ondrasik, director of internal communications for Orlando Health.
  4. Broadcast leadership commitment. Put a video on the intranet of the CEO talking up the program as a way to promote it,said Jim Hemmer, CEO at WorkStride.
  5. Use recognition as an opportunity to mentor. “All recognition is good, but access to new development opportunities is a lot more valuable than a gift card,” Marc-Aurele said.
  6. Don’t “set it and forget it.” Promote the program via company communications and social media, highlighting winners at meetings and on the website, and sending reminders to keep people engaged, said Cord Himelstein, vice president of marketing for Michael C. Fina.
  7. Let future employees know you care. If you have a great program, talk it up on your website, on social media and in recruiting and onboarding efforts.


Reprinted from TALENT MANAGEMENT magazine






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