Recession-proof recognition

Smaller rewards, given out more often, can stop employees from slipping into ‘psychological recession’
By Karen Nixon
||Last Updated: 06/12/2009

Dedicated and focused employees are the heart and soul of an organization. This is even more true in a recessionary economy, so it’s imperative to recognize their contributions.

But as salary budgets are frozen and increases are scaled back, companies need to be creative to find cost-effective ways to recognize and motivate employees. A well-structured recognition program might just be the perfect recipe in a downturn.

When a company is looking to trim costs, a micro focus on expenses could suggest there is room to cut employee rewards and recognition initiatives. But when companies have had to slash the number of employees, either through layoffs or hiring freezes, it becomes important to gain high performance from those remaining.

These employees need to be assured of their value. Smaller awards given out more often can keep the attitudes and minds of employees from slipping into a psychological recession. Employees are also a great resource for ideas and any cost-saving suggestions should be rewarded during tough times.

Here are a few budget-pinching ways to recognize employees:

Gift cards: Employees want to know their employer cares about their personal lives. By rewarding them with gift cards, such as a $10 gas card or a $20 grocery store card, employees can share their success and rewards with their families while also saving on lifestyle expenses.

Green initiatives: To generate and engender loyalty, while saving the company money, encourage employees to explore options to make the company a more responsible, sustainable corporate citizen. Challenge employees to take on green initiatives such as car pooling, avoiding unnecessary printing, bringing in reusable cutlery and recycling paper.

Reward these initiatives with green rewards such as stainless steel water bottles, coffee mugs, lunch bags or totes made from recycled materials. Many of these items can be purchased and adorned with a company logo for less than $10. Ball caps made from recycled soda bottles and T-Shirts made from soybean protein, costing about $20, also add value by bringing together and motivating “green” teams.

Group meals: To help keep recognition top of mind, organize monthly or quarterly breakfasts or pizza lunches that give out individual rewards. This type of venue allows everyone to share their successes and talk openly with other departments, while affording the winners an opportunity to be recognized in front of their peers.

This reinforces the difference employees can make in the success of the company and links recognition to actions that reflect the company’s goals and values. Open dialogue between departments also helps build team spirit and creates a culture of inclusion.

Downgrades: Take the opportunity to look at the rewards program and consider where it can be more economical without actually taking away rewards. Instead of awarding a 10-year employee with a set of wine glasses, choose a barbecue set. Instead of giving watches to notable employees, give out bracelets or cuff links.

If an employer chooses to reward specific behaviours to which it can assign a precise dollar value, a well-designed recognition program with nominal investment upfront will achieve desired results. As an example, if the behaviour recognized is worth $50 to your company, a $10 gift provides a 500-per-cent return on investment.

But clear, frequent communication is still the key driver of any successful rewards and recognition program. Objectives of the program should be outlined to include anticipated results and behaviours needed to achieve the goals. Put into place measurable results and clearly define the timelines and rewards attached to the goals achieved. Review the program as required but ensure all stakeholders know of any changes that have been made. And keep the communications upbeat as positive attitudes and reinforcement can be contagious.

Karen Nixon is vice-president of professional business services at The Promotional Specialists in Markham, Ont. She can be reached at (905) 474-9304 ext. 229 or

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