Author of ‘1001 Ways to Reward Employees’ Says It’s the Thanks – Not the Bucks – That Count

Employee communications/morale programs continue to nudge their way up the corporate priority "to do" list.

Corporate communicators are being tapped as both liaisons for relaying how companies value their employees as well as guides to spearhead new initiatives.

Last week, PR NEWS caught up with Bob Nelson, author of "1001 Ways to Reward Employees" to chat about innovative - and inexpensive - programs companies are employing to reward their staffs. Nelson has also written "1001 Ways to Energize Employees." He is the founder of Nelson Motivation, Inc., a diversified employee training and development firm in San Diego, and is also VP of Blanchard Training and Development.

PRN: What inspired you to write "1001 Ways to Reward Employees?"

Nelson: I'd say that more than anything it was my involvement in my PhD. [at The Claremont Graduate School] program and realizing that the principle of positive reinforcement - the idea that "you get what you reward" is common sense, yet not common practice. In my travels and research, I've interviewed managers and asked them: "What do you do to reward performance?" The typical manager would always have something that popped into his or her head. But when I would ask them, "Well, when was the last time you did that?" - they hemmed and hawed. I discovered that employers weren't using this principle consistently to reward the behavior they most wanted.

PRN: What's been the reaction to the book?

Nelson: It's continually building - the publisher sold twice as many books last year as it did the year before. I'm told that one out of 10 books that gets written gets published, and one out of 10 that gets published makes it to its second printing. This book is now in its 23nd printing - with over 700,000 copies now in print. I'd say it hit a nerve.

PRN: Some of the suggestions in your book might be easy for a company that's doing well financially, but how do you reward employees when your balance sheet isn't that great?

Nelson: I recommend starting without a budget, which will force you to be creative and focus on the activity of recognition - not merchandise and travel. You don't need money - you need focus and the realization that the activity is most important. It's the sincerity of the recognition that grabs employees the most. What we've found is that traditional incentives of money and promotions aren't the top motivators, since most employees view them as an even exchange for their efforts and achievements. Recognition, on the other hand, is a gift, a special, unexpected thanks for a job well done.

Imagine this: Management serves a pancake breakfast if the company makes its quarterly goals or a manager agrees to wash an employee's car if he or she makes a tough deadline.

You could give the winner a car wash coupon or you make it a much more meaningful event: Envision the day this employee [who finished the project on time] comes to work and his manager is in cutoffs and has a bucket and brush, and at noon he hooks up a hose to wash this person's car... People come out at lunch with their lunch bags, and this award now has become a story. Every great company in America is made up of such folklore and if an employee reward initiative becomes part of your culture, it is an enormous benefit. What ultimately sets a company apart from its competition is the people who work there.

PRN: What is the most innovative employee relations program or trend that you've come across in your research?

Nelson: There are so many: Advance MicroDevices, when it reached its $200 million sales goal, held a lottery. The winner, who turned out to be a factory plant worker, was given a new house and three runners-up got Cadillacs. At WordPerfect Corp., the CEO challenged employees that if everyone pulled together and it doubled revenue in one year, he would take every employee [and their spouse] to Hawaii. They blew past that goal and in the end, so they [executives] wouldn't have to shut down the company, they took 10 people at a time to Hawaii and everyone came back newly invigorated.

But I use some of those examples merely as attention-getting anecdotes, because honestly the ones that have the greatest potential aren't flashy or zany - they're very simple and direct. If you do one thing differently, I would recommend that you take the time to acknowledge and thank people in a timely, specific and sincere way. I work with Disney a lot and they have 180 recognition programs. The last time I was there, they had created the Spirit of Fred Award. There is this guy named Fred, a real employee who personifies Disney's principles, so they came up with a FRED acronym for Friendly, Resourceful, Enthusiastic and Dependable. On a lark, they started giving out "Spirit of Fred Awards." Now they do it once a quarter and the employees love it.

PRN: Not to end on a down note, but if any employee communications/employee relations good came out of corporate downsizing, what do you think it was?

Nelson: For the 6 million-plus people displaced over less than a decade, the era of downsizing began with an incredible shock but what many later discovered is that once they got over it and assessed their abilities, they had a newfound freedom. For many people, that meant starting their own companies and for others, it meant gaining a new kind of independence and a new kind of confidence in themselves, not their employers.

Nelson's books, which are published by Workman Publishing, cost $10.95.