Rewarding Good Behavior: An Interview with Brad Reynolds of Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services

Brad Reynolds

There is no better—or easier—way to motivate employees than with an employee recognition program. Not only does this acknowledge a job well done, but it also encourages employees to keep up the good work. e-BIM talks with Brad Reynolds, vice president and chief human resources officer at Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services, for his views on constructing a good employee recognition program.

What is the purpose of employee recognition programs? What do some of these programs entail?

Regarding employee recognition, Philip B. Crosby in his book Quality is Free said, "Genuine recognition of performance is something people really appreciate. People really don't work for money. They go to work for it, but once the salary has been established, their concern is appreciation. Recognize their contribution publicly and noisily, but don't demean them by applying a price tag to everything." Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, may have put it even more succinctly: "There are two things that people want more than sex and money, and those are recognition and praise."

Based on my 30 years of human resources experience, both of these statements correctly highlight the real purpose of employee recognition programs: identify those activities that employees do that move the company forward, recognize these activities positively and publicly and encourage them to repeat these activities plus more.

What do recognition programs entail? The key to a successful recognition program is to "know your audience." What motivates and encourages your staff? One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to employee recognition, and you need to appreciate this fact before you begin a program. Currently, recognition programs include everything from gas cards to frozen hams to paid time off. The content of today’s recognition programs is limited only by budget and/or the imagination of the company doing the recognizing!

Do you find, in general, these programs are necessary because employees feel they are not being treated fairly?

It depends on several factors as to whether or not employees feel they are being treated fairly. First of all, what is fair to one person may not be fair to another. Fair can be a "four-letter word" in human resources. To me, it’s important that employees feel trusted, valued and respected, not that they feel they are treated fairly. When trust, value and respect are found in the workplace, employees not only feel good about their place of employment, they also have this same trust, value and respect for their leadership and supervisor. This is the key to productive short and long-term employee relations. Remember, employees work for an individual, not company.

How can employee recognition programs enhance the company as a whole?

It’s basic human nature to gravitate to an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement. When employees know they matter—and their work matters— beyond the company’s expectation for a ROI, they become emotionally invested in a positive way. Employees bring attitudes and emotions with them every day to work. They will invest energy into the positive or negative. Everyone knows how the negative energy is spent—complaining, clock-watching and so on. Recognition is not magic, but it definitely affects the probability of positive thinking and thereby positive results.

Can employee recognition lead to better customer satisfaction?

The easy formula is, "Proper recognition leads to a happy satisfied staff, which leads to happy satisfied customers, which leads to business success."

Describe the Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services employee recognition program.

Our current program is both "hard-copy" and Internet-based and enables an employee to recognize another employee’s performance excellence—no matter his or her position or location. The program allows recognition to be given via written praise and/or tangible rewards and accompanies our service recognition system. It should be noted that while this program is important, the daily informal recognition that we teach and demand from our supervisors and leaders is even more critical to our success in employee recognition. The right word at the right time or a short written note can be worth so much more than a formal award. Personalized praise that comes in our Daily Huddle communication is also effective for ongoing encouragement.

Many companies offer annual award ceremonies to recognize achievements of employees. Do you think this method is effective?

It is a nice way to summarize what you have already my opinion, recognition delayed is recognition denied. But more importantly, recognition must be local and relevant. Recognition in front of peers is good but recognition in front of family and friends is priceless. That type of recognition is the most memorable and stays with the employee long after a certificate fades. For example, if we can recognize an employee’s good work not only in front of their co-workers but also send them to dinner (at a restaurant of their choice of course) allowing them to treat friends or family members, we have elevated that employee in front of the people who really matter most—their loved ones.

What sorts of awards can companies offer their employees, and why would these awards motivate them?

There are innumerable awards a company can create. But regardless of the title or item, the award has to represent achievement of a commonly shared value. An award represents an ideal—and the significance of that ideal must be alive and well in your workforce before winning that award has any real meaning. An award has to be coveted before it becomes a goal for an employee. Many times "award" programs are not as successful as they could be because the significance of the award was not communicated effectively. In addition, the award has to be seen as worth the effort…do employees really want to do what is needed to receive the award/recognition?

Do awards need to be tangible?

Sometimes they do need to be tangible but they need to be viewed as worth the effort. An important component of recognition is immediacy. The beauty of praise or a compliment is it can be given on the spot and not postponed until a structured opportunity presents itself. You would be surprised what a nice personalized note will do for some. You need to know your audience…what works for one may not work for another. Usually combinations of recognition work best.

Do you feel companies need to get creative when acknowledging employees, or do traditional methods work just as well?

What was traditional for the over-40 employee is not normally acceptable by younger staff. We know that there are generational differences in the need for recognition. For instance, younger employees may care more about paid time off for good work as opposed to receiving a tangible reward such as a gift card. This is why it is so important to understand who your staff is and what motivates them. In all cases, however, the informal "thank you for a job well done" crosses all demographics…everyone likes this method of recognition and it’s quite cost-effective as well!

What is your take on competitive rewards? Do you feel they have a positive influence on most employees?

In the right context, they can work—especially recognition and rewards for group performance. Competition just for the sake of competition in the workplace normally leads to dysfunction and reduced performance, but with the right direction and clear expectations, the performance of a team can be positively affected by the thought of recognition.

How do these programs affect employee productivity?

We like to think it increases productivity, but until recently we only had anecdotal information to support that theory. You really don’t know until you test and ask. Recently, comparing corporate performance data from 2005 and 2007 shows that recognition does indeed lead to good business results. In addition, we do know a positive work culture enhances productivity, and recognition is critical to building the right kind of culture. It’s a company’s culture that determines its long-term viability.

What are some ways companies can evaluate the effectiveness of their employee recognition programs?

You can always compare consistent business results before and after the implementation of an effective employee recognition program or even better—ask your employees! A good way to gauge if your program is effective is ask your staff. See if they can explain the details of your program and what they have to do to be recognized. How about asking them what they think effective recognition looks like and how does their explanation compare to your current program? The fact is that this is the question you should have asked before you implemented your program.

In this day and age, it seems almost common sense that companies would want to offer employee recognition. Why would some companies not want to participate?

I think some companies lose sight of the importance of work in an individual’s life. Whether people love their job or hate it, they spend a good portion of their waking hours working. For many folks, the recognition they receive at work may be the only positive input or "attention" they receive. I am still amazed when I hear from an employee whose birthday is mentioned to their co-workers in our Daily Huddle communication that the greeting they received that day at work was the only recognition they received on their birthday—period. Companies often back away from employee recognition because it can be time-consuming to administer and it costs money. In reality, by not recognizing their staff, it’s costing companies much more through reduced performance and missed business opportunities.

Could employee recognition programs ever backfire? For example, if an employee feels that others are constantly being awarded but he never is, could this negatively affect his productivity, as opposed to making him work harder?

Well-intended recognition can always miss the mark. The success or failure of the program can depend not only on the person receiving the recognition but also who is doing the recognizing. Put recognition responsibilities in the hands of a person who has never been trusted or respected and your program is doomed for failure from day one. In addition, we live in a society that has developed the mentality that everyone should get a trophy for merely participating; that unless you are first, you are last, and no one should be last. There are no losers, just those who get a different type of award. By the way, we (parents) have done this to ourselves. We have failed miserably to teach the fine art of accepting failure and the reality that not everyone wins. In business as in life, the reason for recognition must be clearly defined so it is never confused with an "entitlement" mentality. We want to avoid staff thinking, "If there isn’t a reward, then what’s the use of performing?"

Interview by Jessica Livingston, editor