The team at Manning Pool Service in their Hawaiian shirts for Funky Friday.

Highest of Honors

Recognizing employee achievements beyond certifications, plaques

Successful employee-recognition programs have little to do with the awards themselves, and more to do with a company’s culture.

Kim Peters, an executive vice president at Great Places to Work, a global authority on workplace culture based in Oakland, California, says before singling out individual employees for awards, build a culture of trust. “Otherwise, these awards might have a reverse impact on morale and productivity,” she says. “If it isn’t built on a culture of trust, people are going to doubt the award because they’re not going to be confident the process was fair. It feels like favoritism. That would be very unmotivating.”

Leaders tend to adopt an idealized vision of the culture of their organization. Not confident about your company’s culture? Peters recommends asking employees to take an anonymous survey.

Transparency is also crucial, Peters says, where employees understand qualifications and how to nominate someone. If employees perceive a clique running the awards program or witness the same individual always being nominated, that weakens prestige.

Using data to recognize achievements also establishes an even playing field. “We give all of our supervisors tally sheets and throughout the months if they see someone going above and beyond, they’ll give them a point,” says Kim Nash, vice president at Almar/Jackson Pools in Jupiter, Florida. “At the end of the month we tally it up and everyone gets entries into a raffle.” Items include gift cards and a Yeti cooler. “It’s always good to give kudos in the field, but it’s also nice to have a tangible reward for those who were recognized,” she says.

Another way to build trust is thanking employees outside of awards, such as expressing verbal gratitude, providing handwritten notes or giving shout-outs online, Peters says. “Positive feedback when people have done something noteworthy [is a] way that you can begin to build a culture of trust,” she adds.

As for the award itself, the more specific and personalized the better. “It helps everyone else to understand … and perhaps be inspired to do something great,” Peters says.

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A year ago, Manning Pool Service in Houston, Texas, launched an employee-of-the-month program that collects shout-outs in a box. Whoever gets the most shout-outs is employee of the month, says Ana Manning, chief operations officer, and gets to choose a meal served to the whole staff (including dessert) and to participate in “funky Friday” (wearing a Hawaiian shirt provided by the company, as pictured).

“It’s a chance to pump the brakes, to sit back and enjoy each other and the person who won employee of the month,” Manning says. “In the pool industry, a lot of us work alone, so this is a chance for the whole company to get together and relax and unwind.”

The winner’s meal choice and why they received the award are looped on a PowerPoint slideshow in the company office. Also included are all the submitted shout-outs. “That way, it’s not just one person [being recognized],” says Manning. “It’s been a huge boost in morale.”

However, not all employees are comfortable being the center of attention, and being taken out to dinner in a small group may be more appreciated. “Leaders should really understand the people they’re recognizing and what is going to be most meaningful for them,” Peters says.

While awards programs were traditionally about presenting plaques or certificates at employee conferences, meetings or banquets, today’s honors are woven into everyday interactions or highly personalized. This could be giving shout-outs or kudos during Zoom calls or, as Great Places to Work client Texas Health Resources does, publishing a celebratory digital yearbook for each employee every five years. It includes a personalized message from the CEO and thanks and appreciation from their manager and whole team, including photos of the employee at work and having fun. “It is more meaningful than a plaque,” Peters adds.

Cultivating a family-like culture has been key in retaining and attracting employees for Sean Ruble, who owns Jester Pools in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, with his wife, Nichole. While they have no formal awards program, employees are rewarded through informal social gatherings. Nichole’s home-cooked meals — about twice a week, on average — are offered to employees and their families, and the Rubles also arrange company-wide camping trips to local state parks where expenses are covered.

“We work our butts off to enjoy life — work hard to play hard, that’s our motto,” says Sean Ruble. “We like to create that family feeling with our [employees] and include their families as well.”

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