7 Reasons Why Employee Awards Schemes Suck (and what you can do about it)

Many of us will agree that employee awards schemes that celebrate outstanding individual or team performance are admirable in their intention.

But …they are often lacking in their execution.

It is the unintended consequences of these schemes that needs further thought.

The problem is that those that receive the award are singled out and deemed more worthy than the 98% of the workforce who read the winners announcement and ask “who are they?”,”what was so special about that?” or “what about me?”.

But there is a smarter way forward. One that celebrates achievement without ostracizing those that miss out.

Your key takeaways from this article will be

  • An alternate perspective on the value of employee awards in organisations
  • An insight to the reasons why not to do it
  • More effective approaches to recognising excellence in the workplace

I understand that celebrating achievement is an essential part of the workplace and in life in general.

But the life in general awards are usually comparing apples with apples. The most obvious example is the “Best On Ground” type award, where all players can be compared because they actually play together in the same game, at the same time, on the same court or field each week.

Workplace awards and programs generally do not.

1. Same Same but Different

multiple t shirts on a shelf, all similarAnyone who has travelled throughout Asia will know the saying…

“same same but different”

The local street vendors use this ironic saying as a means to (try) to differentiate themselves from the thousands of other sellers of the “same” teeshirt, or handbag, or whatever.

In truth, everything is the same, the only real difference is the price you may be able to negotiate.

But in the business world, employee awards really are same same but different.

Same Same” is the management perspective that the award is on equal standing from employee to employee, year to year, month to month, or whatever frequency they are bestowed.

Different” is the employees perspective of the award…

What they do is different to me, or what I do is different to them.

A typical question arises “so how can someone else (or a team) be singled out when what they do, and their particular contribution within the company is completely different to mine?”

When you are part of a small organisation (say < 20 employees) this can generally work because everyone does almost everything. Everyone also knows each other well.

But when you are part of a large organisation, one with departments, different floors, different offices, different cities (and/or countries) etc, employees are different.

They are silo’d into their particular sphere of influence and control, and that is perfectly natural.

What is not natural is then trying to compare one persons contribution to another. It just does not work, and employees know this.

They play along and celebrate the achievement with the colleague they do know, but they are completely removed from the work colleague they do not know.

A shrug of the shoulders, a “whatever” comment, and they move on to the next email.

2. Sharing is Caring

the facebook thumbs up iconThis saying is true in the online world, where people actively seek out a “like”, a “+1”, or a post that has been shared or commented on. But not in the offline world of employee awards.

The trap with large organisations is there is an unwritten obligation to “share” the award around the different departments.

Imagine if the Sales Department clean-swept the awards every year, or the Strategic Projects team. You get the idea.

The executive management politics also plays out here. Each Senior Exec wants someone in their team to be recognised.

And if one department has 20 employees, versus another that has 800 employees, this does not matter.

What matters is that the 20-strong department get’s recognised also, or at the very least were nominated for a  gong.

Hence the award becomes a “if we share we care” award.

Again, employees see through this and the whispers begin. It can almost be predicted which team or individual is likely to win based on what area they work in.

3. In whose opinion?

caricature holding a gavelSubjective judging is certainly not unique to awards. Almost all creative / artistic awards are subjective, as are industry awards and many sporting events at the highest level (think gymnastics, diving, dressage, boxing etc etc).

So if this is the way the world works, why not apply it in the workplace for employee awards?


Because subjectivity will always be subject to criticism.

And criticism is the exact opposite outcome an organisation is hoping to achieve by running an employee awards scheme.

Who decides which project, outcome, effort or contribution is more worthy than another?

Whether it is a judging panel, the CEO, or some other combination, it inevitably becomes a perception call. Which nomination is perceived to have had the greatest challenge, or delivered the greatest outcome?

This answer will vary from person to person, and this further erodes the credibility of the eventual winning decision(s).

Often it can be decided by the best salesperson. That is, the person who is most adept and passionate when preparing and presenting the nomination story.

4. The Law of Attraction

close up of female sexy eyesAnother undisputed law of nature is that people are attracted to attractive things. Why do good looking people dominate presenter roles on TV?

Or why does a beautifully presented dessert make everyone go “I want that”.

Strangely enough, employee awards suffer the same fate.

It is the “sexy work” that catches everyone’s eye. The high profile flagship project for the company, the successful new product line, the new IT transformation, the exponential sales figures.

These are attractive, and these are the ones that are always in the box seat to win a gong.

Employee award programs need to actively look past the initial first impression, the gorgeous eyes, the charismatic smile, the smooth talk that is the glamour project or team within the company.

Not everyone can work there, and just because they don’t does not make them any less worthy.

5. Vanilla…..is so vanilla

Did you know that vanilla remains the number one ice-cream flavour sold today, by a factor a 10x the next favourite flavour (which is chocolate in case you were wondering).

So what has this to do with employee awards?

Vanilla is the flavour we need in all companies, for without it you have no company.

Vanilla (typically) describes the work undertaken in accounts, on the phones, administrating our systems and databases, human resources, and other “less sexy” areas of an organisation.

female office worker on the phoneThis is also known as the BAU work (Business-As-Usual) and there are many many people working just as hard, just as diligently, and are making just as big an impact within their sphere of control.

They just don’t get noticed as much because there is no “steering committee” overseeing their activities, or there is no dedicated section in the monthly report highlighting their progress.

Therefore, your employee awards scheme needs to pass what I call “the mailroom test“.

That is, could you ever ever realistically see your mail person winning the award? If not, your employee award scheme suffers from BAU blindness and you need to reassess your criteria and mechanics.

6. Miss Congeniality

A GIF file showing Miss Congeniality remembering to include world peace in her speechIs the Miss Congeniality award the most cringeworthy award given out at beauty pageants?

The pageant organisers spin is that this awards signifies “the friendliest contestant, as voted by the other contestants”

The reality is that it is perceived as a popularity contest, and this may have been (reluctantly) acceptable in our high school years, it is certainly inappropriate in the workplace.

Some employee award programs actively use a voting system where staff can vote on a winner.

This is great if you are well known, your work touches many parts of the organisation, your work is high profile, or you are just great at promoting and networking (Ms/Mr Congeniality).

Not so if you are one of the back-office vanilla workplace warriors (see previous section).

Q. Why then would an employee award scheme ever consider a staff voting system?

A. To be inclusive, and an inclusive workplace is a progressive workplace.

This is leadership BS as it ticks the superficial box that “we actively seek, engage, and value the views of our workers” but it does not consider the end result.

Ms/Mr Congeniality wins again, whilst the office introvert who is amazingly talented and works ridiculously hard misses out again.

7. It’s All Hype

The final aspect of the annual (or to a lesser extent, the quarterly) award scheme is it is a single point in time.

This means there is a lot of hype in the lead-up to the award, promotion of the achievements, pictures of the nominees etc etc.

calendar with the 18th circled

It becomes an event on the corporate calendar, and as such commands the airtime on the company communication channels in the lead-up to the final announcement.

Nothing wrong with that at all, it’s just when it is all over, it literally is all over.

One day later, everyone is back to their BAU activities and the achievements have vapourised into thin air.

No more celebration, no more outstanding achievements until another 12 months.

If the timing on your project is out by a month or two, bad luck. There is always next year. Let’s hope the memory is still alive and the achievement still relevant in 11 months time.

And the pressure is off management. No more active encouragement of nominations, or seeking of outstanding achievements until at least another 10 months. Whew, we can get back to work.

This may seem like a very cynical view of the world, and maybe it is. But maybe there is an ounce of truth in this also, and if so, should you not reconsider your approach to employee award programs?

“I want solutions, not problems”

So what can you do about it?

Make sure recognition is small, local and frequent, not grandios, business-wide and infrequent

Ditch the periodic awards and make recognition a BAU activity. Embed recognition into you daily workplace culture. Ensure achievement is acknowledged and rewarded at the operational level when it happens, not weeks or months later.

quotation - make sure recognition is frequent and local and smallEmployee recognition needs to become a habit rather than a goal.

It does not need a brass band and fireworks to precede it. The best feedback and recognition is when it happens, so establish an environment that does this.

A simple “great job Kel, that report you presented this morning was outstanding” is often that is all that is required, as long as it is said with sincerity and with the appropriate context.

Actively measure and recognise line managers and supervisors who do this.

Ensure your staff satisfaction surveys measure this outcome so you know how you are going.

Get creative with the mechanics and KPIs to achieve this, but always consider the impact from the employees perspective.

Employee recognition and awards programs are not meant to be a tick-the-box-and-feel-good management initiative.

That may have worked in the 80’s and 90’s, but times have changed and so must you.

And finally, despite everything noted previously, if you do persist with the annual employee recognition scheme, make sure it will pass the mailroom test (see above).

Daniel T is the voice behind the blog Rockstar Leadership. If you want to be the best you can be at leading yourself and leading others, then click here to get your backstage pass to personal awesomeness.

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