Thanks to my wonderful wife for the idea for this one. 

jelly-month-club-christmas-vacationOne of our traditions every year is to watch Christmas Vacation (no, not with the kids!) While it’s not my favorite (that spot is held by It’s a Wonderful Life), it always gives me a laugh and reminds me to focus on the important things during the Christmas season.

One of the memorable scenes in the movie is when Clark opens up what he expects to be a holiday bonus only to find a “jelly of the month” membership card. After all kinds of crazy experiences, that bonus was his last opportunity to bring some sense of closure to the season by giving an amazing gift to his family (a pool). When he finds out that it’s basically a certificate for twelve free jars of jelly, he snaps, ranting and raving about his boss, the company, and more.

I’ve been a key part of many compensation and bonus reviews over the years, and there are some excellent lessons we can all learn from this story.

Expectations Matter

During the movie, Clark talks with a friend about his big plan to put in a pool. He even carries around a brochure to look at and share when necessary, demonstrating how excited he is about the coming bonus. The reason he ultimately flips out at the end of the movie is because his expectations did not match reality.

The parallel is obvious. If we are going to provide some sort of bonus, whether holiday-related or not, we should ensure that expectations match reality. You can do some prep work, laying the foundation and expectations beforehand to ensure nobody is disappointed (or at least a minumum of disappointment occurs, because it’s hard to please everyone).

At a previous employer, my colleagues and I worked on an annual conference that required dozens of hours of preparation and delivery work. The first year we each got a very small gift card as a reward, and the second year we got nothing at all, despite the event making hundreds of thousands of dollars in profit. How long do you think a company like that will have an engaged, productive workforce? Hmmm…

Value Should Mirror Contributions

In Christmas Vacation, Clark is particularly excited because his work performance was recently recognized as above average. He created a valuable product for his employer, and he expected his bonus to mirror that level of contributions.

When it comes to offering rewards, recognition, and bonuses for performance and results, be sure the result is related to the level of the employee’s contribution. Someone saved the company $2 million by reducing waste? Don’t give them a $25 gift card and call it a day. An employee creates a new process that reduces customer churn by 10%? They expect more than a pat on the back and a template “thank you” note.

This isn’t an invitation to be overly extravagant, but think about it this way: do you want those people to continue innovating and creating new value for the company? If so, reward them well, and create a virtuous cycle of value for everyone involved.

Discriminate. Heavily.

We’ve been drilled that discrimination is a bad thing. In reality, discrimination is wonderful–it’s illegal discrimination that needs to be eliminated. Some of your employees are going to do their jobs and go home, never adding more value or creating unique opportunities for growth. While those people need some sort of recognition for getting the job done, the ones that create more value need to be treated differently. As I mentioned in my post about how to hire and manage creative people:

Whatever label we stick on them, we need to treat them differently from the rest of the employees. Yes, this scares the pants off most HR pros, because we’ve been taught to treat everyone the same. But it’s madness when you think about it. Equal treatment for unequal performance/productivity/contributions is a surefire path to mediocrity.

When I managed compensation reviews, it always drove me crazy to see our highest performers getting a 4-5% raise and our lowest performers getting a 2-3% raise. That ~2% split wasn’t enough to truly reward our great people and create an incentive for continued stellar performance. My only consolation was the bonus pool that I was able to help work with managers to direct more toward those individuals that offered more than their “fair share” of value to the company.

Public or Private Praise?

The examples we’ve been discussing don’t have to include a moment of public praise, but they certainly could. Here’s a story I’ve told before about two very different methods for showing appreciation for the contributions of an employee or team.

Presenting work awards is one part of the employee recognition process. If you are going through the trouble to nominate someone, process the paperwork, and get them an award, wouldn’t you like people to know about it? Apparently not everyone believes that. Here’s an example of the wrong way to value the contributions of your people:

I was talking to a friend recently and heard this sad story. A handful of employees received awards for superior performance. It was the first time the work group had received awards, so it was a special occasion for the staff members who earned the kudos. However, the manager quickly stepped in and made it known that the awards were not to be communicated internally. Nobody could know that the employees had been rewarded for their efforts.

My take on that situation is multifaceted. First, the manager is missing out on a great opportunity to share about their people. Point out how well they did and encourage others to do the same (or better). And the people who received the awards? You could have given them half as much money and public praise would have made up the difference. Praise has significant value when people don’t receive it often (not that you should withhold it just to make them appreciate it more!)

So, what’s a better way to wrap in public praise without making it awkward? Here is how I liked to do it when I managed a corporate HR function.

One year we had a major corporate office relocation, and it was quite an ordeal. After the dust had settled, the team who made the move possible all received financial awards as a “thank you” for all the hard work, but we wanted to make sure it was more meaningful. Check out the email below that went out as the public praise for the team.

—–

We’ve talked about it before, but recently the corporate office moved to a new location. On the outside, it was a fairly simple affair; however, from the inside there was an astounding amount of work that had to be completed. Not to be dissuaded, a few people really stepped in to make that transition as easy as possible. They picked up extra duties, worked long hours, and fought the good fight with vendors and builders to make sure this space was everything we needed it to be.

For their efforts, each of the employees mentioned below received an award as a token of appreciation; we wanted to offer this bit of public praise as well. To those of you who made it all possible, we all appreciate you very much.

(Employee names removed for this post)

Thank you for your support! You truly embody our core value of Unequivocal Excellence in your work.

—–

At the end of the day, it’s critical to believe that your employees want to do great work. And in your role as an HR/talent leader, it’s crucial for you to coach managers, offer tools and guidance, and help create opportunities for people to be recognized for what they do. I can guarantee that they won’t be disappointed like our dear friend Clark.

How do you make sure your people feel appreciated and rewarded for their work? Do you have a unique way of making it personal and appealing for the recipient? 

employee appreciation day signEmployee Appreciation Day is upon us (March 6th, for those who are dying to know). While you all know that I am a firm believer in the power of employee recognition (whether it’s formal, peer to peer, or anything else in between), I am also a fan of making it part of your culture, not an annual event. The simple analogy is this: would you wait until a specific day of the year to tell your family, significant other, or children that you love and appreciate them? Probably not!

Thanks to my good friend Trish McFarlane sharing the top 3 things leaders shouldn’t do on March 6th, I wanted to kick in 3 more tips for managers that want to skip this whole Employee Appreciation Day nonsense. Enjoy!

  1. Don’t make it complicated. The process for thanking someone is simple. You approach them, thank them for something specific they have done, and go on with your day. This is appreciation at its most fundamental level, and despite the simplicity it has been shown to have an incredible effect on employee happiness and engagement.
  2. Don’t be lame. “Thanks for doing a good job” isn’t really that motivating, and it isn’t likely to reinforce behaviors you want to see repeated. How about “Thanks for providing clarity on that project meeting–it really helped me to understand what’s going on and be prepared for what’s coming in the next phase.” See the difference?
  3. Don’t be generic. If you want to include something monetary, be personal. A good example: I used to work with a young lady who had a goal to visit each baseball stadium around the US in her lifetime. When it came time for a project reward, her manager purchased a nice ticket stub scrapbook for her to track where she had been complete with photos of her and friends enjoying the games. That $20 purchase meant more to her than a $100 generic gift card because it was something deeply personal for her. Another fun example: a local HR Director buys a bag of dollar store goodies for birthday celebrations and each employee gets something. The other employees vote on what to give each other and why, and it gives everyone a chance to join in the fun and makes each “treasure” a personal experience.

What ideas do you have for avoiding Employee Appreciation Day in favor of a continuous culture of employee recognition? Do you have any managers that do this well? 

I’ve been talking with some employees of another company in the past few weeks, and I”m amazed at how poorly their employer treats them. Amazed. The list of affronts is fairly substantial, and their redeeming qualities are pretty much nonexistent. It took me twenty minutes to work through the list of complaints and less than five seconds to gather up all the positive comments about the organization. Seriously.

The Super Secret Strategy

It sounds silly to say it out loud, but this has become my “secret” formula for talking with these kinds of employees: I treat them with basic human dignity. Yes, it’s amazing to behold the response I get. After being “mushroom employees” (they’re constantly kept in the dark and fed crap all the time) for so long, any0ne exhibiting the basic tenets of human decency looks like a freaking knight in shining armor.

Wow.

Again–I’m surprised I have to say this out loud. It sounds like something archaic, yet it’s still surprisingly common. Think this isn’t happening at your organization? Ask your employees. Check out each manager. Make 100% sure that there’s not a version of this playing out under your roof. You don’t want to be that company. Trust me.

Back to work!

Yesterday I had an interesting incident occur that reminded me just how our worldviews can skew our actions. This has a tie to the business world, so hang with me.

Once upon a time

As is often the case, I was walking out of the grocery store with a ginormous box of diapers (Pampers Baby Dry, if you must know), and a random guy walks up to me, commenting on the size of the box. I let it slip that I have twin girls, and he started a long, well-rehearsed story about how he was a long way from home and trying to get back to his own kids. I could quickly see where the conversation was going, so I told him I didn’t have any cash on me. He responded that he didn’t need cash, just some gas in his vehicle to get home. I told him to meet me across the parking lot at the gas station and I would fill up my gas can for him.

When we got over there I took the can out of my trunk and filled it for him. I walked over to where he was parked and said, “Here, keep the can, too. I hope that helps you get home.” His response will forever be embedded in my brain. He said, “If I had known that all I would get out of talking with you was $3 in gas, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Now, up until that point I assumed the best about this guy. I assumed he was telling the truth. I assumed he really needed help. I assumed he would accept whatever help I could offer.

At that point I knew that pretty much everything he’d told me so far was probably a lie. He wanted me to fill his tank for him, and I wasn’t willing to do that. Instead of being thankful for what I had offered, he sneered at it.

The business lesson

Some people automatically assume the worst. If I was one of those people, I’d have shut the guy out long before offering to help. However, there was a chance that he really needed some assistance. By assuming the best and offering what I could, I took a chance at helping someone who might have needed it. And the next time I run across someone who needs help, I won’t let this instance change my reaction in the slightest.

Assume the best. Give what you can. If the other person accepts it, great! If the other person does not, walk away (as I did) knowing that you did everything you could to do the right thing.

What about you? Ever worked with someone who was perpetually looking for the worst in people? What was it like?

Learning how to praise an employee isn’t hard, but if you spend time around some managers, you would think it was akin to climbing Everest or swimming across the ocean. It doesn’t have to be a such an ordeal. Here’s the short and sweet version:

  1. Walk up to the employee who deserves the praise.
  2. Tell the employee specifically what they did well that you sincerely appreciate.
  3. Walk away.

Any questions?

The other day I had to stop by the dreaded DMV to get a new tag for our vehicle. The lady behind the counter couldn’t have looked more bored if she tried, but I tried to put on my happy face. This place was not going to destroy my soul for the short duration of my stay.

A man in front of me in line was trying to pay his taxes, and the lady kept telling him he owed a specific amount. He told her the car had not been used in several months, and she said, “Well, if you can tell me the exact date then I can put that in.”

He seemed lost for a moment. He did not have any way of guessing the accurate date without a calendar, and she was not about to offer any information, so I pulled out my phone.

Tap. Tap. Tap. 

“If it was the first Monday in September, that was the 4th.”

The man turned and looked at me with such relief, and I just turned back to my phone, somewhat embarrassed. I was mentally willing the transaction to finish at light speed. He turned back to the counter, and the lady said, “Well, you still have to tell me the date.”

The guy replied that what I had said sounded correct, though he didn’t have any way of verifying the date without a calendar.

She raised her voice and repeated, “I don’t care, you still have to tell me the date!”

He looked a little annoyed by the attitude, but he repeated the date and she went back to typing on her computer. A few moments later she handed him the form to sign and said, “You only saved $12 by going through all that trouble.”

He smiled and said, “Oh, but $12 is 12, and that’s worth something to me.”

She just shook her head, handed him the receipt, and looked to the next person in line. She’d already forgotten he existed.

I ended up using a different teller who was much more pleasant, and I offered her a loud and hearty “thank you” for her assistance when it was time to go. She was going to need the positive vibes if she was to be stationed next to the Grinch as long as she worked there.

A lesson for us all

This time of year is tough on many people as they are trying to make ends meet while still bringing some measure of joy to family and friends for the holidays. Some people can’t be home to celebrate (we’re praying for your safe return from Afghanistan, George!).

When you’re out and about and someone is serving you, offer them a smile and a measure of gratitude. It might not change their life, but it could make their day.

This saga has rocked Alabama for a few days, and I thought it was an interesting story to share with the outside world. The short version is that teachers can no longer receive gift cards or anything of value from parents as a “thank you” for doing a great job. My response is to this is, “What’s next, outlawing tips for servers?” Teachers have a tough job, and many parents realize that. They appreciate the effort and long hours put in by the people who are educating their children, and they want to take the time around the holidays to do something special to help the teacher understand that they care.

Then the government steps in and wrecks everything (which is pretty standard).

Check out the excerpt below from an email one school system sent to its parents and employees:

In the Opinion issued yesterday, the Ethics Commission set out two specific rules that apply with respect to any gift to teachers:

  1. The gift may not be given for any corrupt purpose, and
  2. The gift has to be “de minimis” in value.

The first rule is easy enough to understand and unlikely to be an issue with gifts you would give to teachers. The meaning of “de minimis”, however, is a cause of some concern because while the term is used in the law, no definition of it is included. The Ethics Commission opinion issued yesterday offered as guidance the definition of the term as employed by the Internal Revenue Service: “A benefit so small as to make accounting for it unreasonable or unpractical.” The Commission also stated an item of “de minimis” value neither has significant intrinsic value nor the possibility of being sold for profit.

The Commission opinion stated clearly that teachers and public employees cannot receive gifts like:

  • hams, turkeys, etc;
  • gift cards with monetary value.

This list of prohibited gifts is obviously not all inclusive. The bottom line, as we understand the Commission opinion, is that any gifts given must be of de minimis, or insignificant intrinsic value to the teacher (unless specifically for the classroom, as mentioned below).

The Commission has given its opinion that teachers may receive gifts like the following (assuming they are not given for a corrupt purpose):

  • Fruit baskets, homemade cookies, etc.;
  • Christmas ornaments of little intrinsic value;
  • Coffee mugs filled with candy of a holiday nature;
  • Any item a teacher may use to assist him/her in performing his or her functions as a teacher, such as notebooks, school supplies, etc.
  • CD’s or books of a nominal value, scarves, etc.

Obviously, this is not an all inclusive list but it should provide some guidelines to you of the types of gifts that are acceptable for school teachers to receive.

The Commission did note that the school or teacher may receive gift cards specifically for use on items needed in the classroom at any time during the year. But it specifically prohibited receipt of gift cards by a teacher for the teacher’s personal use. We see a significant risk of confusion here. For that reason we request that if you wish to present a gift card for classroom supplies to a teacher, please present it to the school principal’s office accompanied by instructions that it is given for the use of a particular teacher or classroom.

Does anyone else think this is more than a little crazy?