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The 5 Worst Employee Engagement Strategies Ever!



You may have thought that, as employers, we would have reached a level of maturity with regard to employee engagement and incentivising people to do better. But we haven’t. In fact, many businesses still fail to understand that “it’s not the money, honey”, it’s the thought that counts.

Why does money not engage as much as non-financial rewards? Because it pays the bills. Cash rewards are quickly forgotten, and any previous resentment settles back in quickly. It’s non-cash rewards, benefits and even simple praise and recognition that really drive employee engagement – and it costs businesses less to implement. But employers are even getting this wrong.

Let’s look at the five worst employee engagement strategies (perhaps ever), and analyse just what these businesses should have done in order to boost morale and performance.

# 5. Cake boss and the Employee Of The Month programme

This is a reality show, and I don’t have much time for reality shows. However, this one filtered through the grapevine and shocked me, partly due to the fact that it happens so often. Running an Employee of the Month programme is an easy get-out, and in many cases, it leaves all employees but one feeling neglected. What’s particularly bad about ‘Cake Boss’ is that the boss picked the winner, and guess what – he won. Hurrah for him!

If you’re going to do it – let colleagues vote, and call it Colleague of the Month instead. Therefore, the perception that management favours one or other individuals is broken down, and colleagues are in control. Equally, you can run these programmes on a shoestring – you don’t have to give cash rewards, you could just give the Director’s parking space away for a week. No money, but plenty of gratitude, and hopefully improved morale and performance.

Related: 6 Ways Companies Can Motivate Smarter

# 4. Macy’s – free Nachos, cause you count!

Or alternatively, free nachos, because that’s all you’re worth. If ever management wanted to send out signals that there’s a disconnect between themselves and the workforce, then here’s a sure-fire way of sending it. Free Nachos.

This is bad on two counts. First of all, it shows little appreciation of the efforts employees are making, and secondly, it’s a blanket approach to reward. Free Nachos for everyone! And if you’re diabetic, trying to lose weight, or simply looking to lead a healthy lifestyle, feel free to buy yourself a salad.

If you’re going to run an employee engagement programme, or any simple strategy designed to motivate your staff, realise that not everyone likes the same things. That’s the reason businesses rushed to introduce flexible benefits programmes when they were introduced – because we have diverse workplaces these days. Younger people could flex down their pension payments and flex up things like shopping vouchers, while parents could flex up on childcare vouchers. Understand your people before you reward them.

# 3. Hurricane Katrina relief workers – a free t-shirt saying “Disaster Relief”

I’ve had a few free t-shirts in my time, and to be fair, they’re still in the drawer, and they do get used. At night. Or when I’m mopping up spillages, things like that. However, they do have their uses. What’s particularly galling for these employees is twofold:

1) they had been putting in long, long night shifts in order to get the work done quickly and efficiently

2) other contractors were receiving $150 gift cards for doing less work

Where’s the strategy? Everyone talks, even across different agencies, because everyone’s working together. So when one employee shows off his T-shirt, saying “yeah I’m going to wear this to bed, it’s not so bad”, and another says “yeah, nice t-shirt, look at my AmEx gift card”, you’re going to breed discontent. Rewards are there to incentivise behaviour. For example, you may want employees to clock in on time, so you could offer to “top up” a gift card every month as a reward for punctuality. You’re driving behaviour. In the case of these contractors, they’re driving nothing but bitterness, hearsay and discontent.

Related: 5 Ways To Develop Productive Work Environments

# 2. Kohl’s and the motivational bracelets

As I just mentioned, employee engagement and incentive programmes are designed to induce behaviours in employees that will help you grow the business. Running alongside this, you have ‘values’ – a set of shared beliefs that you wish to instil throughout the organisation. They are not one and the same thing.

However, at Kohl’s, many years ago, gratitude was shown by rewarding employees with rubber bracelets. There would be four bracelets in total – your aim was to achieve a full set, each one representing one of the company’s values. It was viewed by many as cheap, and nobody wore them. Kohl’s simply wasted their money by having the rubber bands made in the first place, and created a feeling within the workforce that they were cheap.

Secondly, they clearly hadn’t worked out the thin divide between engagement and values. Values are the common beliefs you want everyone to share within your business. They filter down from the top, and they should manifest themselves in everything you do. Engagement is a strategy that both motivates and drives those beliefs and behaviours. Don’t confuse them, and don’t use engagement to hammer home your message – values should be lived, not dictated.

# 1. Torbay Hospital in Torquay – a free chocolate bar

Hurrah! We’ve just been recognised as one of the best Hospitals in the country. What a fantastic achievement – one that we should celebrate heartily, and one that deserves significant recognition for each and every employee who has played his or her part in achieving brilliant results. Here’s a free KitKat. Enjoy it.

A chocolate bar. In fact, not even a chocolate bar, because it was a voucher to go and buy a chocolate bar. Even worse.

This really happened, it’s in the news. Sometimes, it’s better not to reward employees if the only option is one a cheap, insulting one. Instead, why not take individual employees aside and praise them individually – spend ten minutes of your time per employee to give them detailed feedback and thanks. Equally, if you’re going to give a free chocolate bar away, don’t go for a slap-up meal yourself. Be consistent, be transparent, and above all, be fair.

Once more, we see an engagement strategy that has no objective, no clear plan, and no positive result. The only outcome is increased negativity, a reduced trust in the employer, and worse – people leaving.

So, if you’re looking to incentivise your people over the coming months – and money’s tight – remember, you don’t have to break the bank in order to motivate employees. What you must do is the following:

  • Understand why you are rewarding your people
  • Understand the result you wish to achieve, i.e. a certain behaviour + improved morale
  • Understand your demographics – e.g. don’t give iPods to deaf employees, that sort of thing
  • Understand how people react, in other words, are you dictating from above or are you crowd-sourcing?
  • Be fair, be consistent, and be transparent – don’t give staff a chocolate bar when you’re dining at The Ivy

Related: Managing To Get The Very Best From Your People

What do you think? Have you got any bad examples of employee engagement to share?  

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Image: “Staff rating Silhouettes of a group of business people/Shutterstock



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The Author:

Gareth is an IDM-qualified digital marketer with a background in outsourcing, marketing, and online & offline publishing. He spent ten years working in France, where he ran Paris Link magazine, and today combines his passion for online marketing & SEO with horse racing, baseball and raising a talkative 18-month old daughter. http://www.cleverlittledesign.co.uk

Add Your Comment

  • http://www.theexecutivesuite.com/blog/ Warren Rutherford

    Gareth – absolutely enjoyed the post! As one who works extensively in helping employees develop motivational programs your examples hit home with a number of illustrations seen over the years.  My best was a manager telling one of his key employees “I wish I could fire you for visual insubordination.”  Works like a charm, every time. Look forward to hearing other contributors examples. Perhaps you’ll get enough to do a follow up post.  Thanks.

  • Theinfotool

    A different approach..really nicely done

  • http://twitter.com/clevergareth Gareth

    Hi Warren – thanks :) Visual insubordination, that sounds brilliant. I’d like to try that! Let’s see if we can get the best and the worst examples here of employer incentives & engagement strategies… the day our economies pick up, they’re going to count more than ever

  • Adam Gottlieb

    This is brilliant because it’s so true… The underlying theme in all these examples is that the company execs and decision makers don’t really appreciate or understand the efforts and abilities of their employees. It’s not about picking an awkward or inappropriate reward system, it’s about all the steps that come before it.

  • http://www.smartsolutions.ie/blog/ Elaine Rogers

    In a business I worked 20 years ago, they gave vouchers for a specific butcher around Christmas, so we could get our turkey and ham for free/cheap.
    I don’t eat turkey and ham for Christmas, and spent January and February eating meat I did not really want. #fail.

    It could have been worse, though, the business manufactured foam, so at least we didn’t get free foam :)

    I am certain there is a way to pro-rata reward for work accomplished over and above the call of duty, or deadline met early etc. A little more empathy and generosity can go a long way.

    Great post Gareth.

  • Rob Ball

    I agree strongly and to add a perspective. We are all creatures of habit and some are formed very rapidly. I worked with an organisation which gave a Christmas Hamper to recognise an exceptional year. The following year, in which the outcome was average, the staff were very de-motivated when the same reward didn’t appear.

  • Lewis

    I’m not a fan of engagement strategies, really. If you have a reason to celebrate, then do it in style and make sure all people who contributed get their fair reward, but when it comes to stuff like “Employee of the month” or such, well, I think those might work for fast food chains. A truly engaged worker, one that shares his/her company’s vision, should focus on long term goals, not a quick reward. That said, everybody likes to get an iPad for Christmas to celebrate a good year, but if that isn’t possible, then don’t do anything at all. Chocolate bars, for God’s sake!!! :D

  • http://duongsatmienbac.com/ Dịu Dương

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