Employee recognition in a difficult economy

Post image for Employee recognition in a difficult economy

>> Four ways to effectively reward and recognize employees in a difficult economy.

MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S), a 67-person civil engineering, planning, land and construction surveying, landscape architecture, and construction management/inspection firm, has survived and thrived in this economy by reducing costs and by ferociously chasing new opportunities. This has required that our best people do increasingly more with less, a reality likely to continue for the foreseeable future. We have been concerned about the sustainability of this strategy, and have recently spent time debating how to best recognize and reward key employees who’ve been instrumental to our success. We realize that, as the economy recovers, these same team members will help us gain a significant advantage in the markets we serve.

Effective employee recognition has proven to be more challenging than expected. No two employees are motivated the same way. Some are motivated by variety in their work assignments, others by title, others by praise and recognition, and increasingly some (i.e. the Gen-Y crowd) are motivated by flexibility and work-life balance. As a result, it is difficult to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to employee recognition and reward. Instead, effective managers must know their staff and reward them individually and uniquely, an approach that requires significant time and energy.

Add to this challenge the fiscal constraints imposed by a difficult economy. Although many believe these economic conditions will rebalance employee-employer relationships, opportunities for top performers still exist. Firms must continue to motivate and reward employees, while maintaining low cost structures, and avoiding new entitlements and unrealistic expectations. At M&S, we’ve used the current economy as a catalyst to reinforce and reward entrepreneurial behavior in our employees. As a result, we are focusing on new recognition programs that reward initiative and measurable results.

Consider the following ideas to improve the effectiveness of your employee recognition and reward programs:

1) Make the recognition specific and situational. Although one-size-fits-all employee recognition is easy to administrate, it’s ineffective. Instead, understand what motivates individual team members and recognize them accordingly. Obviously, this must also be done equitably; however, a small, well-thought-out reward or recognition will go a lot farther than larger “recognition spam.”

2) When providing financial rewards, consider cash. This might sound trivial, but there’s something about unexpected crisp $100 bills, handed to an employee with a thank you note, that better communicates appreciation. It’s also more fun. Some of the spouses in my office jokingly refer to these spot bonuses as “untraceable,” and they seem to appreciate them more than formal bonuses and incentives.

3) Make the recognition timely and specific. Ideally, recognition should closely follow good performance. Also, make sure that employees understand specifically what they are being recognized for. If given often, and for specific reasons, these smaller acts of recognition will be more powerful.

4) Share information. Consider following a more open book approach to your firm’s management. I’m sure that many firms are inclined to bury their financial books in this economy. Don’t. High-performers are motivated when given information and offered a voice. Make them a key part of the solution. In recent years, we’ve increasingly shared more information with our employees. This has had an interesting effect on our employee population. Initially, I think it scared many. In fact, we lost several employees who were more comfortable when left “in the dark,” fed a constant stream of projects, and left to punch the time-clock. Those employees have all moved on, and were unsuited for current economic realities. Our remaining employees appreciate our more open approach to firm management and are eager to make real contributions to our organization.

Perhaps the most effective motivation for employees is a sincere and personal “thank you.” Say it often. I believe that shared battle scars, gained by our employees during this recession, will continue to entrench them in our respective firms— IF we sincerely recognize high-performing individuals in meaningful, specific ways. By taking this approach, successful firms will use this economic downturn as an opportunity to increase employee loyalty, rather than to squander it. Those who do will retain and attract the best employees, and will be best prepared to take advantage of the economic recovery.

Derrick Smith is a partner with consulting firm MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S), an infrastructure planning and design firm based in the Pacific Northwest. M&S services Water Resources, Energy, Community Development, and Geospatial clients and markets throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Derrick publishes regularly in several regional and national journals that focus on business development, project management, and human resources topics related to his industry. Derrick Smith’s thoughts and past articles can be found at www.derricksmith.net. He can also be followed @derrick_smith.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: