Employee Rewards Can Be Corrosive

One of my meetings this week was down on Wall Street. It was great to see the progress of the rebuilding going on down there. Lots of visitors to the 9-11 Memorial.

While sitting with a couple of executives (one Marketing and one Human Resources), overlooking the New York Harbor, we discussed what they were doing to build a workforce that can truly be a part of their valuable brand. We talked about their compelling business model and how they differentiated themselves by their innovation. We discussed new uses of social media that would thrust them ahead of their competition. And then they mentioned how to motivate their workforce and I heard the word “recognition” which immediately raised a red flag.  Over my years of experience, I’ve begun to cringe at the whole idea of employee rewards and recognition as a technique to develop a culture, or instill the “correct” behaviors. Shouldn’t employee behavior be a result of something deeper than a $25 giftcard?

The brandful workforce roadmap requires a successful business model and organizational mission. If that’s in place, that should be the motivation behind the workforce – to fulfill the higher purpose behind the organization. Wouldn’t that be more meaningful than a getting recognized for a specific behavior – to know that you are contributing to a greater good?

Then, the executives in the meeting looked at each other and agreed. They told me that in thinking about rewarding employees, they had seen it backfire so much so that they said it was” corrosive.” Recognizing individuals for specific behaviors can actually take focus away from collective efforts and overarching goals and divide employees rather than unite them.

I realize that there are entire businesses dedicated to helping organizations with rewards and recognition programs, but are they really needed? What do you think?