Such a narrow limited view of the compensation profession is unfortunate, because money is one of the weakest reinforcement tools. Pay is also frequently the most expensive and the least effective of all the positive consequences of behavior methods we have at our disposal. This total rewards generalist is convinced that we need a deeper understanding of the unique powers of one of the most neglected incentive methods — recognition. Well-rounded compensation professionals ought to realize the special features of recognition rewards that distinguish them from other tools of our trade.
Disclosable: Bragging about income is universally socially unacceptable. Recognition, on the other hand, often involves a group celebration of success which must be shared to be most useful and hence is perfectly kosher.
Discrete: Money gets co-mingled into all the sums accumulated in the bank account before disappearing from the wallet/purse without any association to the behavior that generated it; but recognition is tied clearly and unmistakably to a particular event.
Public, not private (the exact opposite of “discreet”): By most definitions, recognition is a public commendation for a specific service. Calling attention to a success story inspires emulation. Positive publicity inspires others to imitate the notable achievement.
Braggable: (Is that a word? Well, it should be.) Most Western cultures celebrate public acclamation as a socially acceptable outward sign of achievement. Those who could not show pride in their magnificent bonus without being considered arrogant can safely bask in the glory openly bestowed by their appreciative organization.
Inclusive: Family involvement will intensify the reinforcement power of this association of consequence with prior behavior. If dad wins a new flat screen TV, everyone can watch it. When mom earns a special vacation trip, the entire family can share in the reward.
Provide group reinforcement: Awards that can be shared with co-workers and family alike supply opportunities for multiple subsequent reinforcements. Others will encourage and support repetition of what the winner did to earn the prize they all enjoyed.
Memorable: Duration of reinforcement impact is long and occasionally perpetual. Nearly every recognition award with a physical form continues to reinforce for many years. Plaques, certificates, framed pictures, etc., all become treasured mementos proudly brandished on the performer’s Ego Wall. Every day, the sight of them continues to remind the winner, “I won X for doing Y.” These symbols of achievement perpetuate the reinforcement for years after the initial behavior that won that outward sign of appreciation long ago.
Inexpensive: Non-cash positive reinforcements may cost nothing or very little.
In general, while money is slippery, plaques are sticky. Visual awards keep on reinforcing long after the accomplishment they commemorate. Financial rewards, on the other hand, disappear into the bank account without event-specific identity. Money is not easily connected to the achievement that earned it, while physical prizes typically are associated with the success for a long time. Look around you. Don’t you have almost every overt sign of approval you ever earned in your career somewhere in sight? Dollar bills, loonies and Euro notes don’t affect you that way. Many people have “ego walls.” Furthermore, the cost of those reinforcement devices is tiny compared to payroll investments that fail to continually remind the performer of the glow that came with the award.
Reinforcement devices won’t put a roof over your head, but they can warm your heart. That’s a powerful effect difficult to achieve with cash. Remember the special advantages of non-monetary rewards like recognition when you need reinforcement and engagement tools with the special features listed above.
E. James (Jim) Brennan is an independent consultant with extensive total rewards experience, specializing in job evaluation, market pricing and pay budget distribution. After HR corporate jobs in chemical/pharmaceutical manufacturing, he consulted at retail, government, energy, IT, tax-exempt and other industries throughout North America before becoming Senior Associate of pay survey software publisher ERI until 2015. A prolific writer (author of the Performance Management Workbook) and speaker, he gave expert witness testimony in many reasonable executive compensation cases both for and against the Internal Revenue Service. Jim also serves on the Advisory Board of the Compensation and Benefits Review.
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