Why Candy Bars Don't Make Sweet Incentives

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Newsflash: Getting a candy bar chucked at my head doesn't make me work harder. In fact, it just makes me want to give up.

That's how I felt whenever my previous employer would try to reward my performance with sweet treats. I know that employers and bosses sometimes have to get creative when it comes to incentivizing and rewarding performance. Of course, our paycheck is meant to be an incentive, but it's rarely the only way employers reward their workers. From year-end holiday parties to good 401(k) matches, employers can offer a variety of things to attract, keep, and motivate employees. It's a hard task to find those incentives that most motivate employees, but good managers are up to it.

Unfortunately, as I've learned (and am sure you have as well), some incentives leave you scratching your head, or in my case rubbing it. It is my belief that if managers are able to match incentives to employees, they're able to create a more efficient workplace synergy that benefits all. Although I'm self-employed now, I've done my best to highlight some of the most and least effective incentives I've come across over the course of my career.

The Prize Patrol

I spent about five years in the online brokerage industry. This was at the height of the Great Recession, so understandably it was a stressful time for employees and clients alike. One of my main roles was speaking to investors on a daily basis to help with their investing needs as well as offer guidance. One of the things I do not miss about the job though was the Prize Patrol.

On particularly busy days or when managers wanted to drive sales in a particular area, a band of several dozen managers came out in costume on skateboards blowing kazoos and chucking candy bars and cans of soda at our heads. They referred to themselves as The Prize Patrol. Mind you, this was all while we were talking to clients on the phones about their investments. A lucky few out of us would be awarded a gift card or something along those lines for meeting whatever task they wanted done, or it could've also been at random. I can understand that management wanted to motivate us and create a fun environment, but it often left employees feeling deflated or irritated.

How numbers can backfire for sales reps

If you're a sales representative, or know someone who is, you know how easy it is to focus on numbers to the detriment of other things. Often, sales reps are compensated for reaching certain numbers and those competitive in nature are going to do all they can to reach their numbers. Understandably, businesses and managers want to incent sales, but not at the expense of causing detriment to the company. The problem comes in when you begin to set caps on the amount of commissions a rep can earn in a given month.

I saw this situation in the job I had prior to working in the brokerage industry. I worked for a financial services company with a dedicated sales force. The company set a fairly restrictive commission cap for what reps could earn each month. The good ones would do all they could to hit that cap each month, and once they hit it they would hold off on submitting new accounts until the first of the following month. The reps didn't want to submit work they wouldn't earn maximum commission on, and the firm didn't want to pay any more than it had to. The result was lackluster sales results and a large number of reps who left dissatisfied to pursue careers elsewhere.

Don't always make it about money

One of the keys I've seen to incentive programs that have worked well is that you make it something that brings value to the employee. It's a firm's responsibility, on one level, to find those things and use them to not only gain, but retain solid employees.

This has been a particular challenge over the past few years thanks to the state of the economy, but it can still be done. As a firm, I believe it's key to be transparent with your employees. They understand that times can be tough, but there are still many ways to incent your employees. Some of those methods are:
  • Offering expanded job responsibilities
  • Offer time off or flexible work schedules
  • Offer other ways to grow professionally
Again, the key comes down to finding what brings value to the employee. While it can be a challenge, it's the managers who do this well that have employees who work harder and create a more effective synergy in the workplace.

Maintain the element of surprise

One incentive I've seen work really well is surprising employees. Just keep in mind this will incent some, but not others. Employees want to know they're valued, and it doesn't take large sums of money to make them feel valued. The surprise can be something as simple as a short note of thanks with a small gift card (think $5 or $10) to a favorite store or coffee shop to being given the right to leave 15 or 30 minutes early that Friday.

Don't do it on a service anniversary though--do it when they complete an assignment or show initiative that brings value to the team or company. Again, this requires being a good manager and knowing your employees but when done well, small surprises can create a great workplace environment where employees are motivated to work more efficiently.

Determining the right incentives to offer employees can be a challenge. The key is to not treat employees like children--instead, find what will add value, and the rest will work itself out.
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