How to Demotivate Your Best Employees is a Harvard Business School (HBS) article whose title alone sends the wheels in many minds spinning at full speed. This particular HBS piece evaluated an attendance award program that defined perfect attendance as “not having unexcused absences or tardy shift arrivals during the month.” The program “led to a decrease in plant productivity by 1.4 percent, which added up to a cost of almost $1,500 a month for the plant.”

The Downfall of Incentive Programs

You may be scratching your head and wondering how an incentive program led to a decrease in productivity and finances, but the article addressed this confusion. Employees often called in sick versus showing up late, so they were still eligible for the award. And outstanding employees became unhappy with the realization that instead of the company praising employees for exceptional work, the company praised employees for meeting the minimal company expectation– showing up to work on time.

What about ‘employee of the month’ awards or ‘employee of the year’ awards? Where do they fall in this conversation? From personal experience, I can tell you that what begins as an incredibly thoughtful gesture designed to motivate employees, can become the very thing that suggests company favoritism and makes all the employees who don’t receive the award feel unnoticed and undervalued. 

Incentive Programs Done Right

It’s not that incentive programs should be thrown out the window. No, not at all. An incentive program can make employees feel valued and motivate them to operate at their absolute best. What it comes down to is how a company designs and manages its incentive program. 

The following are a few things to consider to better ensure an incentive program is a feather in the company’s cap, not a weight in its pocket:

  • Are you praising employees for exceptional efforts?
  • Are you creating an incentive program that allows you to express gratitude toward someone for their impact on morale or productivity? (i.e., Will your incentive program allow you to spotlight someone who stayed positive throughout a dismal week or who came in on a Saturday to meet company needs or who found an error that saved the company their image and their finances?)
  • Are you allowing room in your incentive program to spotlight those who standout throughout the week, month, and year?
  • Have you thought critically about ways the incentive program can be manipulated or cheated?
    • Do everything you can to make it less likely people will cheat the system (i.e., calling in sick instead of reporting 20 minutes late, so they stay eligible for a reward) and, as a result, hurt the company’s efforts to boost morale and productivity.

Forbes suggests companies think of appreciation days to encourage company morale and make everyone feel appreciated. Having one day with food, activities, and an event planned goes a long way to make employees feel valued. Forbes also suggests considering a Health & Wellness Day, which could include anything from a healthy breakfast to free membership for a health app. And don’t forget the power of volunteering and attending events and activities as a group.

Incentive programs can become beacons for a company, popping up among the landscape of time-sensitive projects and late nights and long days. They allow employers a chance to show employees they’re more than a name on a pay stub. Don’t toss your incentive plan to the curb, but do consider whether it’s serving the company and the employees the best it can.

Author: Evelyn Lindell