Reward and Recognize

It’s deceptively simple. Your employee survey says folks don’t feel recognized, and so your HR team helps you develop a bonus program. In rolling it out, you tell your leadership team this bonus is for folks who go above and beyond the expectations of their role. Fast forward a few years, and we’re horrified to learn that the bonus program is at best ineffective; at worst it became a point of toxic culture itself! We just wanted to help people feel like their work was appreciated, but nearly every reward program contains one of the following mistakes.

A Purely Monetary Reward. Unless the bonus is a very significant amount, bonus reward dollars get lost in the pay stub. As a leader, you owe it to your team to seek out better ways to recognize folks in line with the values of your company.

Lack of Input. If we are only recognizing the individuals we see, then we are ignoring a large portion of the work (and the individuals) we don’t see regularly.

Rewarding Above and Beyond. Finally, the criteria often used to define these recognition programs is incredibly subjective. To make matters worse, we often describe it as going “above and beyond” expectations without defining either “above” nor “beyond”. As a result, we end up subjectively picking conditions that may not emphasize the culture we want.

None of these by themselves will kill an engineering organization. But here’s an actual cause and effect. A company I wager most folks are familiar with built a spot bonus program where the manager had a $3000 use-it-or-lose-it budget to issue bonuses to any employee they felt was “exceeding the expectations” [sic]. Nearly every manager used this system to reward employees in $500 increments for shipping large projects, regardless of the project’s success or adoption.

Today, the company is struggling with leverage and a massive culture of Not Invented Here. Asked to dig into why this was happening, I sat down with the engineers to learn why there was so much value placed on new instead of existing solutions. Immediately, the problems with their bonus program emerged.

  1. The $500 award meant nothing to the employees. The “reward” as engineers saw it was a letter they could include in their promotion application which was the key reference point for career advancement.
  2. In the larger teams, the extroverted folks were consistently the the ones receiving the recognition.
  3. The reward considered “exceeding expectations” as building something new as opposed to using existing solutions.

While this company accidentally made all three mistakes, you don’t have to. But if you want to roll out your recognition idea well, the process is going to take both research and time.

The Reward

The foundation of any recognition program is the recognition, but the vehicle for that recognition is the reward itself. A reward needs to be meaningful, significant, and relevant. If the reward isn’t something people actually desire, the program will do a poor job of selling itself. Some of the best rewards reflect the company culture in the award itself.

  • Rackspace has a Straightjacket Award, given to only to those who “do whatever it takes to bring Fanatical Support to life.”
  • A group at Pinterest uses Recognition Coins (pictured at the top of this article) with an antique silver finish, given along with a personal thank you conversation from a skip level manager.
  • Blizzard makes sure that employees who stay with the company through the highs and lows of game development take home a piece of the magic they helped create.

There’s no real guidelines on cost here, but seriously, don’t cut corners.
If you’re having a hard time being creative, sites like The Noble Collection, Thin the Herd, and Ichiban Toys are all great places to start the brainstorming. Involve the team, and you’ll end up with something that people want to earn.

The Visibility

Getting visibility into your organization means doing more than just asking everyone a few days before the next all hands and hoping for the best. It needs to be systematic, consistent, and low friction.

By far, the most common solution to visibility is to get more people involved in the process. With the increased popularity of Slack, tools like HeyTaco! and Propsboard make it easier than ever to thank someone. As an added bonus, these newer tools give you a log of every person in the company doing amazing work. (Don’t forget that you also need to be using these tools if you want them to become a norm at your company.)

One of the coolest solutions to a lack of visibility I’ve seen over the years is a physical wall at Pinterest where people pinned up weekly achievements, complete with lighting and sound effects. When visibility is something that feels fun to do, you’ll see a lot more involvement from everyone.

Finally, I can’t stress the importance of keeping first level managers engaged throughout the process. With weekly 1:1s, and sometimes also being hands-on in the code, these folks have a much better pulse on all the engineering happening in the company and why it matters. Find or make the time in your regular organizational meetings to connect with these folks and feed their information back into whatever universal system for visibility you’ve adopted.

The Consistent Criteria

By now, you have something worth earning, and insights into who could be doing things that you’d like to recognize as an organization. It’s time for the single most difficult part of the reward system: clear and transparent criteria. It starts with answering the following questions.

  • What about this work was significant?
  • Who (person or organization) was this work important to?
  • If anyone else in the company did this work, would it be just as significant? Why or why not?

What you’re trying to do with these questions is identify what specifically is the behavior you are trying to recognize as a company. The number one way criteria systems break down is by rewarding people for going “above and beyond” expectations; it’s a vague statement that doesn’t consider the value generated or the business importance. The other thing you are trying to do is normalize the criteria. If your company wants to reward leverage, then the criteria for the reward should specifically state that.

Make a spreadsheet if it helps with planning out the criteria. List every criterion down the left hand side. Then, when you evaluate based on this criteria, you can see prior decisions. When (not if) you find a misalignment in your decisions and criteria, flag it, address the difference, and reevaluate everyone with the new criteria.

And if multiple people satisfy your criteria? Then multiple people receive the reward. Consistent criteria ensures you’re constantly recognizing people for the right reasons.

Private Recognition, Occasionally Public

You’ll need to select whatever delivery style makes sense for your program and your company. Remember, not everyone wants to be singled out in a company all hands. Before you drag someone up on stage, thank them privately and ask them if it is okay for you to point out their work.

Done right, you can reward the culture you want to become and begin affecting change.

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Code Drift is the personal website of Rudolph Jakob Heuser