Employee of the year – a blessing or a curse?

This post was triggered by a conversation with someone who works for a large corporate organisation (that shall remain nameless of course). This person doesn’t really know what I do for a living and is unaware that I spend a good portion of my time reading and writing about topics like employee engagement, and talent recruitment and retention.

Employee-of-the-YearShe was recounting the story of her company’s ‘Employee of the Year’ award. This seemingly prestigious accolade has recently been bestowed upon a member of their sales team. From what I can tell, she works reasonably hard and isn’t undeserving of the honour per se. But giving her this honour has kicked off all sorts of unrest and ill feeling across the organisation. To even be eligible for this prize, one must first have been awarded ‘Employee of the Month’ – the nominations for which come from the broader staff population (note: not customers AT ALL which I thought was interesting). The management then debate amongst themselves in order to decide who ‘wins’. The winners for the year are all then put forward for the employee of the year, which again is decided via a management team powwow.

This year’s overall winner was recognised as employee of the month some time ago. But many are upset about the result because they feel she is mostly just the management’s ‘pet’ employee. And so the picture becomes clearer about why the staff aren’t happy about the situation. Add to this the fact that February’s monthly honour was given to someone who’s only been with the company for six weeks when someone else in an identical role (receptionist) has been with the company for six years and never won employee of the month, let alone employee of the year…and without descending into gossip and tittle tattle, you start to see why this whole concept is so divisive.

Gamification at work

Now, gamification in the workplace has grown at an incredible rate and is being embraced by organisations at a number of different levels to incentivise and encourage employee engagement. It doesn’t work in every context, but can add a layer of interest and excitement around potentially mundane tasks such as compliance training or even employee onboarding for example. But the idea of the employee of the month/year doesn’t fit with the concept of gamification. There’s a prize, but it’s awarded subjectively i.e. at the management team’s discretion. And there’s not much one can do to influence it. So even if someone works harder, aces their customer satisfaction goals or smashes their sales target, they have no way of improving their chances of being recognised by this scheme. (Interestingly, the ‘winner’ in this instance is in sales but is not their best performing sales person).

Instead what this scheme has managed to achieve is keep one person extremely happy, whilst simultaneously disengaging a far greater number of employees. Indeed, one staff member has already threatened to leave. I also imagine (although I don’t know this to be true) that the employee of the year must find herself feeling a little embarrassed and awkward about the whole thing, particularly if her colleagues feel she is undeserving.

So what’s the answer? Well I think it’s pretty obvious that this particular scheme ain’t working for this particular company. This doesn’t hold true for all of these types of initiative as the deciding factors and voting rights will vary. But with increasing employee engagement seen as a top measure of success for HR strategy, it shows that organisations need to get closer to their staff and understand what works and what doesn’t. If these managers were close enough to – or properly engaged with – their staff, then they would quickly see that this scheme is more detrimental than anything else. It would be better to design an incentive so that every employee who surpasses a certain performance level may be eligible to earn an award, for example.

HR Tech World LondonNext week, I’ll be attending HR Tech World Spring in London and I’m looking forward to attending sessions on trust, rewards and adoption (amongst many others). Sometimes I overlook these sessions in favour of exploring the latest technologies or products, but not this time. I’m aiming to balance out the tech talk with some of the less code driven elements of HR. I’ll be reporting back, so stay tuned in case I uncover the perfect alternative to the employee ‘disengagement’ scheme described here…


About kategraham23

Start-up founder, writer, connector, librarian's daughter. Interested in learning, HR, technology, online, media, marketing, fashion and cricket. Not always in that order. The views expressed here are solely my own and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of the company I work for currently, or those I've worked for in the past.
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