Precasters use employee recognition programs to motivate employees and keep them happy, loyal and productive.
By Bridget McCrea
After five years of service at Modern Precast Concrete, employees receive a gift and get to be guests of honor at the precaster’s annual company meeting. At 10 years, they take home a stylish watch from the same meeting. When they hit the 15- and 20-year marks, the Ottsville, Pa.-based firm gets a little more personal, sometimes calling a spouse or family member to find out what’s on the employee’s wish list (A new golf club? A DVD player?).
Even when employees aren’t rounding that half-decade mark, they’re eligible for the precaster’s “AA..HA” (which stands for Awesome Associate Hero Award), given to those workers who go out of their way to provide outstanding customer service. To recognize them, the firm hands out personalized certificates, $25 checks and mugs emblazoned with “AA..HA.”
“It’s all about recognizing those who go above and beyond the call of duty,” says Vernon Wehrung, president and CEO of the 115-employee firm. “A lot of customers call and tell us what a good job our employees have done, so we decided to reward them.”
Doling out the rewards isn’t without its challenges for Wehrung, a self-proclaimed “spur of the moment guy,” who enjoys surprising employees with last-minute recognition programs. A few years ago, for example, he was taking loyal employees with 20 years of service on one-week vacations. The several trips taken were well received, says Wehrung, but last year his board of directors (of which he is the chairman), pointed out that they weren’t being administered in a fair and equitable manner.
“We had some employees who were here 20 years but who had their challenges – such as a negative attitude,” Wehrung says. “Their managers were telling me that the program sent the wrong message, so we stopped it.”
Run by a team of five employees who have about $10,000 to create and administer the firm’s incentive programs in addition to several annual, company-wide events, Modern Precast’s employee recognition programs go a long way toward letting workers know that their hard work is appreciated. Wehrung says they also serve as a valuable recruiting tool, since many prospective employees have never worked for employee-oriented companies.
“They tell us that they never got lunch on their birthdays, or ‘spiffs’ ($10 and $20 cash awards for, say, picking up trash in the parking lot without being asked) at their past jobs,” says Wehrung. “Not only are the programs real morale boosters, but they also keep employees happy and productive.”
As competition stiffens for hard-working, loyal employees, the number of programs being used to keep those workers happy is rising exponentially. According to a recent survey from research firm WorldatWork and the National Association for Employee Recognition (NAER), the trend is for more firms to make employee recognition an integral part of their “business and people strategies.”
According to the survey, 87 percent of companies use recognition programs as part of their human resources strategy, and four out of 10 are doing more with recognition than they were one year earlier. Of those companies with a recognition program, 65 percent have a written strategy and 97 percent of those feel it links directly to their overall goals as an organization.
Put Utility Vault of Auburn, Wash., in that category. For its 125 employees, the precaster offers a wide range of incentive programs designed to keep workers productive and – even more importantly – safe. Revamped about five years ago, the company’s safety incentive program takes attendance, individual safety and group safety into account when doling out the rewards.
“It’s a three-pronged approach to safety,” says Rob Buck, safety coordinator. For being at work every day and not having any “reportable” accidents (such as an injury that requires stitches or pain medication) during a specific quarter, for example, employees earn “UV dollars” that can be traded in for gift certificates or prizes. Got a safety violation? You lose your UV dollars for that particular month. Served on the 12-person safety committee? You earn extra UV dollars.
Around Utility Vault, the UV dollars are highly guarded by the employees who earn them, as are the personalized hats, T-shirts and jackets that are awarded to employees who make it two, five and 10 years without a reportable accident. Every month, the “Safety Employee of the Month” stakes his or her claim to the best parking spot in the company’s lot.
For the group incentive, each quarter that the company goes without a lost-day accident, the company provides a barbecue lunch. Bigger milestones mean more grandiose prizes. When the precaster’s accident-free streak spans several quarters, for example, rewards range from T-bone steaks to drawings for 32-inch flat-screen televisions and microwaves.
For Utility Vault, the benefits of its employee recognition programs have been significant. Last year the company was awarded the VPP STAR status award for its outstanding safety program. Plus, says Buck, employees know that they’re appreciated and respected. “These programs show that the management team really cares about the employees, and everyone here thrives on that,” he adds. “When you get a good pat on the back, you’re going to come back and do an even better job.”
To develop effective recognition programs, Wolf J. Rinke, president at Clarksville, Md.-based Wolf Rinke Associates Inc. and author of “Don’t Oil the Squeaky Wheel and 19 Other Contrarian Ways to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness” (McGraw Hill, May 2004) says firms should focus on the execution of the programs and not just the hype that surrounds them.
In other words, learn how to “walk the walk,” says Rinke. “Companies spend too much time talking about these programs and not enough time putting them into action.” To avoid falling into that trap, Rinke says precasters need to set aside the time required to actually “catch” employees doing something good.
“It could be as simple as blocking out time on your calendar to walk through the plant,” says Rinke, “looking for people doing things right and letting them know about it.”
To recognize those who stand out, Rinke says precasters can use employee of the month (and/or year), years of service, birthday and holiday events. “The vehicle itself is not as important as making the program itself a priority,” says Rinke. “The key is to tie the reward to the performance in a timely manner, and focus clearly on the peak and above-average performers.”
The latter is particularly important, since many firms repeatedly reward their peak performers (typically the top 3 percent to 5 percent of their workforce). Ignoring those who fall just below that mark can actually be counterproductive, says Rinke. The rest of the employees won’t even make the effort if they know they don’t have a shot at it, so Rinke suggests creating a system that recognizes 85 percent of your team members in some way, such as for years of service, birthdays, etc.
Regardless of which program you choose or how it’s administered, Wehrung says, “Get it rolling now, rather than later.” Start small with a basic program that rewards employees for a job well done, and expand it from there. “Think of it as a way to spread the feeling of being valued and recognized to your employees,” says Wehrung, “and you’ll get an awful lot of mileage out of it.”