#284 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 7          July 1997

Having Fun With Reward and Recognition
by Matt Weinstein

Mr. Weinstein is President of Playfair, Inc., (Berkeley, California; phone 510-540-8768) that presents innovative team-building programs, focusing on the use of fun and humor.  His latest book is Managing to Have Fun (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997, from which this article is adapted. www.Playfair.com

The difficulty with a standardized reward and recognition program is that it is a completely impersonal process.  Instead of thinking about the specific people involved, the company provides the same generic rewards to everyone.  But when an element of fun and play is added to a financial reward or bonus, the experience becomes personalized and much more memorable for the award recipient. 

Without any additional expenditure, the reward can become even more meaningful.  When you incorporate an element of fun and play into your corporate rewards program, your employees will be delighted not only by the reward itself, but also by the way the reward is presented to them.  If you can make the reward and recognition process fun, then your employees will be talking about the event long after it has ended, and you will have multiplied its team-building impact by many, many times.

One month, Dr. Alexander, of the Youthful Tooth dental office, calculated that he could give a two hundred dollar bonus to each member of his staff.  But Dr. Alexander knew that if he just added two hundred dollars to each of their paychecks, his staff members would have been excited about it for a little while, but then they would probably use the money for something “practical.”  So he invested a bit more time, energy and creativity, and found a playful way to use the bonus money—a way that had a much more lasting effect.

Dr. Alexander closed down his office for two hours one afternoon, and took all thirty-five members of his dental practice to a shopping mall.  He gathered the staff around him in a circle, and handed them each an envelope containing two hundred dollars in cash.

“This is not your money,” he told them.  “This is my money.  But anything you buy for yourself with this money, in the next hour, is yours to keep.  Here are the rules:  You have to spend all the money on gifts for yourself.  You have one hour to spend it, and you have to buy at least five different items.  Any money you haven’t spent in the next hour comes back to me.  Go get ‘em!”

Dr. Alexander reported that his employees spent the next hour dashing wildly from one store to the next, yelling back and forth to each other about the treasures they’d found.  “If I had just given them the money, they would have put it in the bank or spent it on paying bills,” he said.  “This was a real treat for them—and it gave me a great feeling, watching them having fun.”  At the next staff meeting, everyone brought the presents they had purchased for themselves for a show-and-tell session with the group.

By adding an aura of unexpected excitement to the presentation of the bonus money, Dr. Alexander was able to create a special team-building opportunity for his staff.  The trip to the mall gave his employees the chance to interact with each other in a positive social situation completely separate from the normal working environment.

His basic concept can be easily adapted to fit a more modest budget.  Catherine Jackson, the director of a college food service, was inspired by Dr. Alexander’s story, and took her own secretary out to lunch at a restaurant at a nearby office.  “During lunch I told her what I appreciated about her.  Things I hadn’t taken the time to tell her before.  Then, after lunch was over, I gave her fifty dollars and said, “Take the next hour off, cruise around the mall, and buy yourself a present from me!”

And on the opposite end of the financial spectrum, the Ford Motor Company spent more than a million dollars in one memorable evening, demonstrating that Dr. Alexander’s idea can easily be adapted to fit a more extravagant budget as well.  Ford rented out Nordstrom’s department store in downtown San Francisco from 6:30 p.m. to midnight one evening, and gave $5,000 in spending money to each of its 250 top-selling sales managers, who were in town for a national sales meeting.  Ford hired sports celebrities Walter Payton, Tommy Lasorda and Julius Erving to accompany the sales managers on their shopping spree.  According to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, “Payton had a ball in the shoe department, acting as a salesman to the Fordniks….”

Like the staff of the Youthful Tooth, and like Catherine Jackson and her secretary, the Ford sales managers created some “shared history” together that evening, a history filled with playful memories that they could all reminisce about together in the months, and years, that followed.

No matter what your budget, you can make the reward and recognition process fun.


Having Fun at Work

Here are some innovative ways company’s are making the work environment fun:

  Hold a lottery where the winner gets driven to and from work one day in the company (or a rented) limo.  (Security Life Insurance of Denver)

  Create a “Laugh a Day Challenge” where employees are encouraged to bring in a joke or a cartoon to share every day for a month.  (Bank of America)

  Give employees a choice of unusual rewards, like “a menu item named after you in the company cafeteria,” or “The Chairman or President does your job for a day while you train and supervise.”  (Wells Fargo Bank)

  Bang a gong every time you make a sale, to let your coworkers know the good news.  (IBM)

  Tape a candy bar to the middle of a long memo.  (Measurex)

  Bring in champagne to work on alternate Fridays, and toast the successes of the past two weeks.  (General Foods)

  Pick up a lottery ticket on the way to work and attach it to the handle of the broom at the back of the store.  The first person ambitious enough to sweep up wins an unexpected prize.  (Crate and Barrel)

  Sponsor an ugly tie/ugly shoe contest for your employees—and let your customers and suppliers by the judges.  (General Motors)

  Send pizza to the home of an employee who has worked overtime, so she won’t have to cook dinner after work.  (Great Speakers Bureau)

  Bring in a bouquet of flowers one day and present it to one of your coworkers.  Tell him or her, “I want you to keep this on your desk for the next half-hour.  Then pass it on to someone else and tell him to do the same!”  (Playfair, Inc.)

  Establish casual dress days, or Hawaiian Dress Days, or Suspender Fridays.  (U.S.F. and G. Insurance)

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