Employee Incentive Programs: Flexibility Is the Key in Making Them Work

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Aug 4, 2011

Creating an employee incentives program should be considered a key factor in any business plan to keep the employees motivated, regardless of the economic climate.

Moreover, when times do get rough, a proper incentive program can keep employees focused as company changes happen all around them. The proper incentive program can keep employees from jumping ship because they won’t perceive the grass to be greener on the other side.

Let’s assume that you fully agree that incentives are a key factor to your company’s success and you’ve decided to implement one. But now comes the hard part – running it.

There are more steps involved in operating an incentive or recognition program than many managers might think. There are aspects of the process that need to be considered from the start through to the very end, namely the point at which an employee receives the reward and decides to use it.

Why you need flexibility

They key word to keep in mind when managing your plan is flexibility. Not just flexibility in the kinds of rewards that are offered, but flexibility with what can be done with them once the employees have them in hand.

What happens when employees decide to “cash in” and receive their rewards? This is known as the fulfillment process and it’s something you might not even think about in the early planning stages. Shouldn’t it be pretty simple to just walk down the hall and hand over a gift card? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

Employees don’t want to feel like they are locked into just one option. If you only offer one universal incentive for every employee, it will be less interesting and certainly less special than offering unique rewards customized for each employee.

That’s why flexibility is key and why being flexible needs to continue through the fulfillment portion of the program. Life is rarely a straight line and employees often have very different ideas about what they want to do with their rewards once they get them. This can lead to frustration for the person managing the program.

For example, let’s say you give the employee a travel reward. Before long, the employee is asking a thousand questions about when they can and cannot travel, the number of people who can travel with them, what sites they can visit at the destination, and what parts of the trip they can and cannot change. Who’s going to answer those questions? Are you going to put that burden on your administrative assistant who already has too much to do and is not necessarily a travel expert?

It doesn’t even have to be something as potentially complicated as a travel reward. If you offer them a gift card to a local store, you may discover that they don’t shop there. They may want to exchange the card for another one. They may wonder what will happen to the left over money on the card if they don’t spend it all at one time.

Getting extra help with the program

They may put the card aside for a while, perhaps even forget about, and then wonder if the card is still good a year later. Or the store for which they got the gift card may go out of business and they wonder what they can do with the card. Who handles these issues? You need to be prepared to provide those answers and be flexible enough to provide adequate solutions if you want to maintain the good feeling the rewards and incentives program was designed to bring.

If you narrow the scope of the rewards, or try to make things too rigid or “one-size-fits-all” you risk undoing all of the goodwill that the rewards program brought about in the first place. You could end up creating resentment focused on the rewards and incentive program, which is the exact opposite of what should happen. It’s a sure-fire way to make management seem cold and unconcerned with employee welfare and appear as if the management is completely out of touch with employee needs.

This is where having extra help with your program can come in handy. There are those out there who are experienced in the fulfillment side of the incentives program, as well as running other aspects that you may just not have to time run in house, such as frequent communications about the program. They can run the entire program, or they can advise on the best ways for you to run it.

Programs that aren’t carefully managed won’t last

Regardless of who is running the program, though, keeping things flexible and being willing to work with employees when it comes to cashing in their rewards is important. In fact, it could be the most important step. The last thing you want to do is go through the process of researching, setting up and running a reward program only to fall down when the actual redemption process comes around.

Don’t be tempted to skip planning for this step by assuming it will work itself out. Handing out generic gift cards at the end of the line is not properly preparing for situations that may arise once the cards have been distributed. Remember why you decided to create a rewards program in the first place.

Depending on how it’s run, a rewards program can encourage employees to sell more, work harder or give something back to the company. However, a program that is not carefully managed all the way to the end, in a way that makes the employees glad to have participated, is not one that is going to last.

If you have questions or are uncertain about how something should be run, or the legalities of how it should be handled, then you should seek help. There are those out there who can guide you through the potentially turbulent waters and make sure you stay on course. Your employees will appreciate it and you will appreciate the lack of headaches.