Syncrude innovates: keeps recognition fresh

Recognition programs need ongoing maintenance

Motivation is a moving target. Just when you think you have it figured out, something changes and it seems broken again. This is a big reason why you can’t set up a single recognition or rewards program and expect it to work for everybody forever. People’s expectations change. Programs get stale.

Syncrude, one of Canada’s largest energy companies, headquartered in Fort MacMurray, Alta., is an example of an organization looking for innovative ways to revitalize recognition.

John Thomas, manager of operations, helped spearhead efforts to recharge recognition programs, many of which had run their course in the preceding years. A special focus was put on raising awareness and skills in informal recognition, because employees reported this to be the piece most missing in day-to-day operations.

Thomas created a “pay it forward” award, which consists of a simple plaque bearing the name, “The Pay It Forward Award.” Thomas first presented it to someone on his senior staff for exemplary work. On the back of the plaque it describes how the award can then be given to someone else, solely at the discretion of the current holder.

Thomas has also linked recognition with achievements noted on performance appraisals. He reviews the performance appraisals of about 500 people and selects the ones identified as high performers to write them a personalized letter, extracting various points from the appraisal created for them by their leaders.

Other initiatives include sending leaders into the field to personally recognize high achievers. Employees are taken off of their equipment or away from their jobs for an impromptu recognition ceremony with nothing more formal than the leader’s pickup truck as a backdrop. Thomas also talks with the employees to explain why their leaders have singled them out for special recognition. Employee feedback on this simple activity has been positive.

Nothing beats personal interaction when you want people to know they are important. Toward that end, Thomas has started to schedule four hours a week with his loss management co-ordinator to go out into the mine and meet individuals to talk about procedures, safety and morale, and query them on whether or not they are receiving any positive feedback on their work performance. This gives employees an opportunity to talk one-on-one with the manager of operations (Thomas is responsible for about 600 staff). It’s a chance to get to know people better and have them each get to know and be more comfortable around management. Thomas uses this as a venue to talk with them about the kind of work environment management is attempting to create at Syncrude and to try to “walk that talk.”

Other managers are doing similar things in an effort to create and sustain a culture of recognition at Syncrude. The organization wants some senior leaders to conduct informal workshops with the leaders of other teams throughout the organization as a way to help spread the word and positive recognition practices. Says one manager, “I think those leaders who are good at and see the value of recognition can really help influence their teammates both in such a discussion and also in the workplace.”

Thomas adds that positive employee response has rejuvenated his own attitude towards recognition. “I think if you surveyed our people both a year ago and today, you would note a significant difference in areas like morale,” he says. “I almost stopped some of the recognition activities I was doing, but the feedback has been so positive in so many ways, it made me want to continue.”

Reward cards give shopping power

Choice is an important recognition component for employees, and advancing technology is giving employers a way to provide it. Now, instead of being restricted to the 2,000 or so items typically offered up by incentive program catalogues, American Express Incentive Services has come up with a program that allows employees to access the infinitely wider world of retail through a new reward option: stored-value reward cards that work, from the user’s point of view, exactly like debit cards.

As points are earned for top achievement, they are loaded onto a card, and that card can then be used to purchase merchandise or travel. From the reward program participant’s point of view, the transaction happens in exactly the same way it would if the card were a regular credit or charge card.

Cards can either be “ongoing,” continuously re-loaded with points as the participant continues to earn them, or they can be “one-time,” issued with a pre-determined and finite amount of points. A company can choose what works best for its objectives. One-time cards are good for on-the-spot rewards, such as spontaneous recognition, while ongoing cards are well-suited for long-term programs where desired behaviours are repeated.

A company can control where and how the card can be used — virtually anywhere a charge card is accepted, or only at certain places. The card usage may be set up to fit a company’s incentive objectives, campaign theme and audience. This type of reward allows employers to do things other rewards can’t. For instance, an airline may give its frequent fliers a reward card accepted only at its own counters or at a hotel partner’s properties.

Another company may elect to exclude its competition from places where the card is accepted, leaving intact the rest of the retail, travel, dining and entertainment universe. Stored-value reward cards give companies a high degree of flexibility to meet business needs.

Further enhancing the sponsoring company’s choice is the option to customize the look of the card with graphics, the program theme or name and the employee’s name. Customizing the card ensures that every time participants use them, they’re reminded where it came from and why they got it.

Bob Nelson is president of Nelson Motivation, Inc., located in San Diego. A well-known recognition speaker and author, he can be reached at (858) 673-0690, [email protected] or visit

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