Employee Rewards and Recognition: 10 Examples of Incentives That Don’t Work

by: Nichole Gunn June 24, 2020

When looking to enhance company culture, boost productivity, increase employee retention, or simply inspire morale, employee rewards and recognition are a great place to start your research. But before you can begin picking out ideal ways to recognize employees, you have to answer the fundamental question: do incentives work?

With 25+ years in the incentive industry, we here at Incentive Solutions respond with a resounding “yes!” But before you take our word for it, let’s take a look at the arguments against employee rewards and recognition, and identify why certain incentive practices have failed in the past.

Do Incentives Work?

According to Alfie Kohn’s article published in the 1993 September-October addition of Harvard Business Review, employee incentive plans simply cannot work. It cites rewards as merely affecting “temporary compliance,” causing an adverse “punishment” effect, and paints incentives as promoting “work for self-gain”.

Now let’s stand that argument up against a few of today’s job market statistics, factoring in the expectations of today’s modern employee:

  • Out of 200,000 survey participants, 79% stated they would leave a company because of lack of recognition.
  • According to job satisfaction statistics for 2018, engaged teams can lead to a 21% increase in profitability.

From what we can draw from these statistics, it isn’t so much that incentives cannot work, but more that some incentives don’t work. Let’s take a look into 10 of the most ineffective employee reward ideas as part of an employee rewards and recognition program.

attendance award

from Imgflip Meme Generator

Rewards and Recognition: 10 Examples that Don’t Work

When it comes to creating a successful employee incentive program, which reward and recognition program strategies should you avoid?

  1. Rewarding Attendance. Last time we checked, showing up to your job is an inherent part of your job description. When you set the bar low in the workplace, the bar is, well, set low, and inspiration for any type of exceptional work is deflated.
  2. Rewards for just doing your job. Again, also part of your job description. Compensation for completing job requirements is already in place, and mark an even exchange. Workplace productivity has no room to grow if the end goal is simple job completion.
  3. Rewards without measuring engagement. How do you know if your rewards and recognition attempts are effective if you aren’t monitoring program data and overall interaction with your employee incentive program? Incentive programs require consistent KPI analysis and optimization to stay on track with program objectives.
  4. Launching a program without running a true marketing campaign. Have you outlined measurable goals, conducted research on your target demographic, stacked your plan against successful competitors, and established a frequent and effective communication plan?
  5. Not communicating an appealing program value. Your incentive program must appeal to your employee’s self-interest and be deemed worthy of their extra efforts. Make sure the desired behavior is clear, and the rewards have appeal to all participant types.
  6. Providing inconsistent, temporary rewards. In Kohn’s article, he states that “rewards do not create a lasting commitment. They merely, and temporarily, change what we do.” In other words, you have to commit to rewarding people in order to make incentives work. Whether your incentive provider is helping you run the show, or you have a dedicated staff member, program management is key to its consistency, longevity, and overall success.
  7. Giving cash. Successful incentive programs appeal to both the desires and emotions of their participants. Studies show that a cash bonus is impersonal, and therefor not memorable. Treat your employees to a true reward experience with access to an online merchandise catalog, or gift cards.
  8. Rewards with the intent to manipulate. How you communicate and implement your program will have a large effect on the message your employees receive. Manipulation implies a party that is unaware of their behavior being modified. When awarding an employee for desired behavior, and adding a message of recognition and appreciation, the reasoning for the award is clear. You can also overcome this feeling by truly investing in the level of your incentive program and the rewards provided. Giving people freedom and flexibility in their reward options offers personalization and indicates a level of respect for your employee’s worth.
  9. Rewards one way. As mentioned by Kohn, “rewards discourage risk-taking.” Here at Incentive Solutions, our Quick Points module is one of many incentive software options that incorporates rewards on the spot for coming up with a unique solution or idea, on top of seasonal promotions and peer-recognized rewards. Who says there is only one way to offer rewards? Variety is the key to a well-rounded incentive strategy.
  10. Incentives that backfire. Okay, you’ve got us: incentive strategy isn't always perfect. The key to launching an employee incentive program without a hitch is an experienced advisor. With the right employee recognition program provider, help will be provided every step of the way, and a quick change of course can be implemented when participants aren’t responding as expected.

Interested in Rewards and Recognition that Work?

Check out some of our employee reward success stories, or take advantage of a free consultation with our team! We will happily discuss your unique employee incentive goals and offer experienced advice. Did we mention we're nice?

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About Nichole Gunn

Nichole Gunn is the VP of Marketing at Incentive Solutions, an Atlanta-based incentive company that delivers advanced, agile B2B customer loyalty and channel sales incentives programs.