Not Everyone’s a Fan of ‘Employee of the Month’ Programs

Singling out workers can cause resentment, discouragement

By Dana Wilkie Apr 8, 2015
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“Employee of the month” awards—always a great motivator, right? 

Not according to some HR pros.

These recognition programs—designed to single out one worker every four weeks for their contributions to the organization—can actually cause resentment and discouragement, wrote HR professionals during a recent conversation on the Society for Human Resource Management’s official group page on LinkedIn

“I find that EOM [employee of the month] arrangements can lead to resentment,” wrote Kristen Stine, SPHR, director of human resources at the PETA Foundation. “I don't love any plan that requires there to be only one person recognized and (in the same vein) requires that someone be recognized each month,” wrote Stine, whose foundation promotes animal protection. 

Other posters wrote that if many people are working hard, especially toward a common goal, it can be disillusioning if just one person is singled out. 

“If everyone is going above and beyond, it wouldn't really be fair to recognize just one employee,” wrote LaDaisya Brooks, global HR manager at Bellevue, Wash.-based Unify Square Inc., a training and development consultant. “Instead of motivating employees to continue giving their all, promoting teamwork, and boosting engagement and morale, I fear it would have the opposite effect, causing discouragement, resentment and decreased camaraderie.” 

Mike Martin, office manager at Dallas Psychiatric Associates, wrote that his company replaced its EOM program with a more informal recognition process after the same three workers kept winning the EOM award.

The replies were responses to a LinkedIn question from one HR professional at a startup company who wanted to recognize how hard employees had been working, perhaps by starting an EOM program.

“The problem of an ‘employee of the month’ award is that it’s a zero-sum game,” said Tony Ventrice, director of game systems design for Badgeville, the gamification provider. “Much like a college course graded on a curve, no matter how well you perform, you may still never win if someone else manages to outperform you.

He added that the biggest problem with an EOM program is that it can be perceived as a “Who hasn't received an award yet?” program. “If employees don't feel like actual substance stands behind the award, it will feel arbitrary,” he said. 

Stine wrote that PETA throws a party when a team wins a victory of some sort. In addition, it may recognize three people in one month for going above and beyond their normal work duties. “We reward staff as it happens, not just because we have to find someone for this month,” Stine wrote.

Another HR professional wrote that his organization provides end-of-quarter discretionary bonuses based on the company's performance. He called it a good approach to team building and said it’s more inspiring than waiting for a bonus until the end of each year. 

Such bonuses are popular in the advertising, marketing and sales worlds, he wrote, adding that companies that do embrace EOM programs should ensure the selection process is nonbiased, perhaps by relying on a diverse panel of managers to pick each month’s employee. 

Larry Gelfund, principal with HR consultancy Laredo Learning LLC in Michigan, wrote that a company he worked with replaced EOM programs with a weekly “meet your co-worker” event that features one employee who talks to colleagues about—and shares photos of—their job, their lives and their families. The presentation is broadcast in break areas on large screen TVs. 

“Once it got off the ground, people were approaching the administrator to be next,” he wrote. 

Employee engagement consultancy Brilliant Ink surveyed 306 Fortune 1,000 employees in October 2012 and found that much employee appreciation begins before a worker’s first day on the job. For instance, the survey found that more than 2 in 5 said their first day on the job was disorganized or confusing, and about the same percentage said there was little or no structure to onboarding. Nearly 1 in 4 said they felt “misled” about their new job during the interview process. 

Ventrice said that in general, recognition programs should start with a clear threshold for success and reward everyone who reaches that threshold. 

“Employees now have guaranteed recognition,” he said.

Employee recognition company Michael C. Fina suggests recognizing all employees periodically, perhaps with regular events. The company suggests: 

Recognizing a Recent Accomplishment: Tie a celebration to the company’s recent accomplishments, and use the opportunity to motivate and inspire.

Leaving Handwritten Notes: Put a personal touch on the celebration—employees will appreciate the thought and effort.

Giving Token Gifts: Offer Starbucks gift cards, party favors, themed prizes through a recognition system—give workers something fun and thoughtful to commemorate the day.

Including Virtual Workers: Send remote workers an e-mail or a thank you card, or order them lunch for the day; just don’t leave them out.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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