should we have “employee of the year” awards?

A reader writes:

I am a part-time employee in community recreation. One of the places I work only operates in the winter. I am an assistant supervisor in my department. Every year, at the end of the season, a tradition is the Employee of the Year awards. The person who is selected has their name added to the plaque of the respective department. Last year, people expressed that they were unhappy with the way the person was chosen (the head of our department chose the person in conjunction with the full time staff). That led to having five nominations in each department this year, and then the department voting. Then, the department head will look at the votes, which will assist him/her in the decision. However, now there are people complaining about how they should have been nominated.

Personally, I am not a fan of the Employee of the Year awards. I feel that everyone in the department works hard, and that it is not fair that only one person is acknowledged for their hard work. However, I don’t see this ending any time soon. I also don’t believe that the “winners” are chosen fairly. Last year, a full-time staff member said that one of the employees was chosen “because they stayed out of the drama.” I have expressed my concerns to the full-time staff, and they will not be getting rid of the awards. Is there even a fair way to choose an “employee of the year”?

They should end the program.

It would be one thing if it were an inoffensive program that happened in the background, didn’t take up much time, and didn’t cause angst among other employees. But that’s not the case here: It’s causing strife and pissing people off, it’s not seen as fair, and it’s leaving a bunch of your employees feeling unappreciated.

What’s the point of continuing such a program?

In fact, what was the point of starting one in the first place?

Recognition shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, where if one person gets it, other people can’t. Your employer should be giving everyone feedback and recognizing everyone who does good work. And it should be rewarding its best people in much more meaningful ways than an annual award — like strong evaluations, great raises, good management, new challenges and opportunities to develop their skills (for people who want them), and ongoing positive feedback.

But as for whether there’s anything you can do about this, it doesn’t sound like there is.  You’ve voiced your concerns (which was the right thing to do) and have been told pretty clearly that they disagree and are going to continue their divisive, vaguely cheesy tradition regardless. All you can really do at this point is use it as an opportunity to get some first-hand insight into why these programs generally aren’t a great idea, which is something that may potentially be useful for you later in your career.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. OM*

    Interesting response! From an HR standpoint, is there an appropriate way to singularly and publicly recognize employees who are truly going above and beyond?

    1. Michele*

      Not an HR rep, but I could see asking employees for nominations with a paragraph explaining why they think someone did an outstanding job. Then there could be a newsletter or such saying with a few people recognized and why.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Give their projects and achievements visibility by talking about them publicly (and praising their work).

      And raises, bonuses, promotions, professional development opportunities, etc.

    3. sam*

      our company does a quarterly “honors” type thing (which I’ve also seen at other places that I worked). Anyone can nominate anyone, and the honors can be for an individual or a team. There’s no limit on the number of honors that are given out, but they end up being vetted at pretty high levels so that there are only a few (i.e., less than 5) each quarter. They’re usually given out to teams that have really gone above and beyond – major marketing pushes, big IT initiatives, projects that involve putting in a lot of extra hours.

      There’s usually a small cash component and an extra PTO day as part of the “reward”. plus a little glass award for your desk. At the end of the year, everyone who won one of the quarterly awards is put into the pool for the year-end “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” awards, and those come with larger bonuses.

      It’s worked pretty well in the time I’ve been here.

    4. BananaPants*

      My company has an award nomination scheme for going the extra mile. There’s a certificate and a monetary award that I think maxes out at $250. Any employee can nominate another employee but it’s usually done by a manager. I get one every 18 months on average. For several years they went in the direction of giving out a ton of extra mile awards but the overall award pool didn’t increase, so rather than getting say, $250, people were getting awards of $100 or even less. Since it’s taxed as a bonus, after taxes you wind up with around 60% of the award amount in your paycheck, and employees said they’d prefer to have fewer extra mile awards given out but to go back to larger amounts. So they switched to being a bit more selective in awarding them but giving out the larger award amounts. It’s nice, I guess.

      There’s a higher award available for truly going above and beyond on a major project, and I think for that the award amount can be up to $1000. I’ve gotten two of those in 11 years and it was not the max amount but still appreciated.

    5. doreen*

      My agency recognizes employees who go above and beyond- but I think the key reason it doesn’t cause friction is that it is not a single “employee of the year” award . There are a number of individual awards for “the employee who contributed the most to XYZ function” but most of the awards are the sort without any limits- if one person deserves it, there’s a single award but if 20 people deserve it there are 20 recipients.

    6. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      I don’t think the problem here is singling someone out for recognition. I think it’s that there’s some idea that there’s just one person who is better than the rest. Employee of the year things are so weird because it makes it sound like that person is the BEST EMPLOYEE over everyone else, which makes other feel bad? weird? and left comparing themselves to that person. Single people out for positive stuff like crazy – just don’t make it a competition where the system dictates that only on person is worth the recognition.

    7. Clever Name*

      A couple of my coworkers went truly above and beyond for a particular project, and the owner of the company thanked them in an all hands meeting and gave them sizable gift cards. I thought that was pretty cool. We get profit sharing bonuses, and sometimes you get extra when you’ve gone the extra mile.

    8. Lisa*

      I’ve seen good awards programs that were tied to a specific metric that isn’t really personality-related. This person drove the most sales, had the idea that gained the most users for the app, whatever. Usually works better in very large organizations than where people thought they had a 1/10 chance of winning or something and got attached to the idea of winning until they saw someone they didn’t like get the award instead.

  2. Tasha*

    I worked for a company where every month an employee was recognized for contributing the biggest money saving idea. Then in December, one of the 12 was selected as employee of the year. Sometimes it was an evaluation of the 12 ideas head to head, but at least once I know the selecting committee got so acrimonious that they literally drew the name of one of the monthly winners out of a hat.

  3. Michele*

    The places that I have had with employee of the whatever awards were always annoying. If someone does an outstanding job, promote them or give them a bonus. Awards like this just breed resentment and claims of favoritism. There is already plenty of that with promotions and such, but at least with those, there isn’t the idea that this one boss’s pet got special treatment. If several people can get promoted, that just seems more fair.

  4. Brett*

    Our employee of the year program is definitely divisive and hardly morale building. There are two awards, and employees from the same two departments have won every year since the program was created. Since all bonuses are tied to those awards, office politics around them are very heavy.

  5. Finbar*

    Okay. I know this one will be unpopular.

    I just read your post at USNews about how we all have these “misconceptions” about “millennials.”

    One of the “misconceptions” I guess I’m guilty of holding is that we’ve conditioned millennials to believe that everyone should get a trophy. We’re all winners and no one should have his feelings hurt because someone else may have been told she’s done a better job, or trained harder, or scored more runs.

    Dunno Allison, it sounds a lot to me like you’re saying “if everybody can’t be made to feel loved, then no one should be recognized for a job well done.”

    1. Michele*

      That is not a generational thing. My dad used to work for a place that was really stingy with bonuses, but did the employee of the year thing. He hated it because it spread so much resentment among his employees who felt that they deserved recognition, too. Most of his reports were boomers.

      1. Another Ellie*

        I used to work at a place that did the employee of the year thing. The criteria for employee of the year was “be a VP, and have not won in the past N years” where N = the number of VPs. So, basically it was a round-robin of the very top staff, not an actual award for achievement. You can bet that this bred some resentment, especially among middle managers who were working really hard to be innovative, but who were never recognized for that. It’s a great way to chase away top-performers.

    2. fposte*

      I think you meant to put this on the previous post. And what you seemed to hear Alison saying bears no resemblance to anything I’m reading in the article, so maybe you were thinking of a different article as well?

      1. fposte*

        Ah, my apologies–you’re talking about the employee of the year thing in light of the millennial article.

    3. Brett*

      There’s a distinction here. Employee of the year awards literally say, “Only one person should be recognized for a job well done.” There is a huge difference between everybody and only one person. Getting rid of employee of the year does not mean no one should be recognized, it means that recognize one and only one person is a bad idea.

      1. Finbar*

        Well… How about “One person should be recognized for a job excellently done (one that we’d all be well-advised to take as a model for ourselves).”

        We shouldn’t award average performance; we should NOT be afraid to single out consistently exemplary work, though.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But this isn’t really about either of those. It’s great to single out exemplary work, but that doesn’t require an awards program like this, when it’s creating animosity on staff.

        2. jamlady*

          I’ve never worked anywhere where only 1 person was deserving of recognition. Ever. And also, people deserve more for excellent performances than a crappy plaque.

          1. Adam*

            Yep, I really could not care less if my fellow paper pushers in departments that I never interact with know if I was recognized for something or not. They’re going to forget all about me the moment the awards ceremony is over, as is their right.

        3. alma*

          I worked at a company where this kind of recognition was project-based. For example, if five people committed their weekend to a particularly important product launch, all five got a little recognition and a little accompanying bonus in their paycheck. It would have made no sense, and probably would have demotivated people, to single out one person when all five made the sacrifice.

          And honestly? It’s rare, but I actually have been at workplaces where I would have had no problem with the whole group being recognized. Some hiring managers are just really, really good at picking the right people.

        4. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          There are also more productive options. If you recognize great performance all the time – publicly, when you can, the people will start to learn what it is that is desirable. If you just do it once, it can be hard for people to really gain a lot of information from that.

          When I want something to change, I start looking like crazy for every single time somebody is doing that thing the right way – and I make a point of not only recognizing them, but doing so in front of others (if you’re worried about embarrassing people, at least sent an e-mail to everyone thanking/recognizing the person and detailing what they did that was so great – don’t leave out the specifics). It works like a charm. I don’t even have to tell other people to start doing that thing that way – it just happens. I use this strategy especially when I feel like I’ve been having to do a ton of corrective feedback lately so that I can get the change I’m looking for without wearing people out. Speaking of which, I need to call the person who taught me this and thank them.

    4. itsame...Adam*

      She is saying that everybody that deserves a reward should get one, and not just one person of all the people that deserve one. The millennial article relates to an imaginary notion that everybody needs to be pempert regardless of their value. Those are two different things.

    5. EarlGrey*

      I don’t think it’s about everyone feeling loved, it’s about trophies and awards being a lousy way to show appreciation. If everyone gets one, the awards are clearly BS. If only one person gets one, but everyone knows their accomplishments aren’t superlatively above and beyond, the award is clearly BS.

      So, recognition should be substantive and proportional to the work being recognized. Awards don’t usually accomplish that, and I think it’s human nature (whatever generation you’re in) to feel a bit resentful if only one person is publicly recognized like in this scenario.

      1. fposte*

        And trophies, in the millennial stereotype, are awarded in actual competitions where you’re supposed to have a single winner but millennials muck it up by giving everybody a trophy.

        Work isn’t supposed to have a single winner. So giving a single trophy in a situation where many people have excelled is just as foolish as giving a trophy to everybody–in both situations, you’re avoiding admitting just how many people have performed really well. So it’s actually committing the same error as the practice Finbar is decrying.

    6. Allison*

      You make it sound like such a black and white issue, as though either one person gets a trophy or everyone gets a trophy. There can be some middle ground here! I absolutely see the need for recognition of exceptional work, but that doesn’t have to mean that one person is given an award each year, that’s taking it to an unnecessary extreme. What many companies do instead is recognize one person, or sometimes a few people, at quarterly company meetings.

      If we make it about one person winning the whole shebang and “getting a trophy,” we make it seem like everyone at the company is competing for that one big award, which can result in an environment where people are looking out for number one, when instead they should be encouraged to work hard so the company as a whole is successful.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        While I agree it doesn’t have to be either-or, all employees do need recognition. Sometimes it’s more minor for one person than another. I also think that it’s really critical (and overlooked) to recognize people for doing the basic parts of their job competently and consistently. Unless you work in a field where innovation is the main thing, most of what you actually want from people is for them to do the basics well. People pay such close attention to the recognition they get, and the recognition received by those around them. If you notice the basics being done right, the basics keep getting done.

    7. AnonyMiss*

      I see your point, but I also see a misconstruction. No, not everybody needs a trophy, and no, not everyone is a winner. But a crappy EOY program that entails literally nothing, except for putting your name on blast and getting a plaque/pin/award certificate hot off the back office laser printer is not a way to recognize good employees. If the selection criteria are unclear, not well communicated, not transparent, or plain non-existent, that’s not rewarding performance, but breeding nepotism.
      Can you do a Chocolate Teapot Maker of the Month, where you reward whoever made the most chocolate teapots that month? Yeah, probably – it is pretty transparent, and those who didn’t get it will likely not feel hurt. But then again, there is the “I have an ADA accommodation, I cannot physically work as fast as Wakheen or Apollo, therefore I am forever precluded” litany. Do you really want that can of worms open? ADA lawsuits are really expensive.

      The bottom line is – to me – that you don’t need a formal EOY-type program to make employees feel appreciated; and if they feel unappreciated already, an EOY plaque is not going to make them feel any better.

    8. Anonsie*

      I’m going to echo what AnonyMiss said here, because I think people really really greatly misinterpret the actual effect everyone-gets-a-trophy has on people, and it’s similar to what happens when you only reward people arbitrarily like this.

      When everyone is acknowledged equally you don’t become conditioned to think you’re always doing great, it’s exactly the opposite of that. You feel like you’re mediocre and no amount of actual hard work or skill or determination can ever allow you to stand out or be acknowledged because you just suck. You and all your peers suck so much, in fact, that they had to just blanket say “you were all ok” and leave it at that. That doesn’t feel good, it stings. Those of us who want to be high achievers don’t really have any good context on how to do that, so we do our best and then anxiously await feedback to see if our best was good enough or if we really are entirely mediocre and “Participant” is really as high as we can go.

      Similarly, when only one single person is ever acknowledged and the route to getting there is largely arbitrary an entirely opaque, that provokes anxiety and hard feelings because people don’t know what they need to do to be considered high achievers anymore. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving the same to everyone or nothing to everyone, any system where you are not acknowledging or rewarding actual progress is going to breed discontent and worse performance because people don’t know where the bar is to reach it.

      1. AnonyMiss*

        Let me bounce off of your comment, since you phrased it far better than me.

        A better way is to set a clear and objective bar, and anyone who reaches it is rewarded. If nobody hits the bar, it’s time to revise your expectations as an employer. If everybody clears it with no problems, it’s time to revise your expectations as an employer.

        Also, this bar needs to be clear, measurable, and in no way custom-tailored to one employee or one group, equally accessible to all, regardless of age, gender, race, disability, or any other protected class. Since most organizations have various job descriptions, it has to be something that is achievable whether you’re a customer service rep, a chocolate teapot maker, or a senior marshmallow fluffing engineer, because if you measure your CSRs performance to how many teapots they make on average per shift, it will just breed infighting. Sooo… when somebody finds a bar like this, do let me know…

        1. Jenna*

          Yes. I hated the supposedly objective measurement of how much X was processed, when our branch had less X coming in, and all of us at this branch were multitasking on that and Operations duties. Meanwhile, the department across the country we were being measured against did not have to multitask, as they had enough X coming in to keep them mightily busy all day. Guess which location did better by the “Objective” measure?

    9. Tinker*

      So, here’s the deal about the “everyone gets a trophy” complaint:

      The simple response to this is to talk about how the people receiving the award know that it is devalued, how “the kids keep score themselves” (and isn’t THAT interesting, that they’ve picked up so early that it doesn’t matter how you play the game but if you win or lose), maybe pointing out that the complaint has been around so long that the kids these days are mid-career adults who might be parents themselves, etc etc etc.

      These things are true. What is also true is that the complaint itself valorizes zero-sum competition as the only legitimate way to evaluate people — that playing soccer yet losing should be equivalent to not playing soccer at all, that giving a person who in fact made an entry in the science fair a certificate acknowledging that fact actually lessens them as a person, that receiving a bottle opener for a fun run constitutes the degeneration of modern society, or in this case that people whose efforts to benefit the company might have been noteworthy but were not THE BEST so therefore recognizing them is a matter of coddling their feelings (which is framed derisively, about which many more volumes could be ranted) rather than giving appropriate recognition for performance that is distinctly yet not necessarily uniquely excellent.

      While this sort of competition isn’t completely irrelevant, in most practical applications it is more immediately important to think of personal persistence and group cooperation than on identifying or striving to be the singular winner. So yes, if the entire team or a substantial portion of it made notable contributions to the collective success of the endeavor (and that’s almost down to the definition of what a company is — a collective endeavor in some sense), and if what these people did constitutes something that you want to see more of (hint: IT PROBABLY IS) , then indeed it might be appropriate to give awards to more than one person, or at the very least not to artificially tighten constraints so that the distinction between the actually rewarded candidate and the group of people who are functionally equivalent is arbitrary or related to factors that you would rather not encourage (e.g. dirty politics, personal prejudices, etc.)

      Do you want everyone to be excellent, or just one person? And if you do want everyone to be excellent, why not make it possible to recognize the existence of more than one star?

      It’s for this reason, as well as for other factors related to the problem of human existence generally, that I actually think that the complaint is more toxic than the trophy, at least when one doesn’t factor in the effect of giving the trophy to people who are aware of the complaint.

    10. neverjaunty*

      I remember people making the exact same grumbles about the previous generation and it was just as silly then.

      The workplace has rewards and recognitions in the form of promotions and raises. “Employee of the Year” adds nothing to that.

  6. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’d be interested to hear any success stories for “employee of the —-” programs. In my experience, these programs often end up doing more harm than good, even when they are created with the best of intentions.

    1. Leah*

      ITA. I don’t even think there’s a way to choose fairly. Ideally the OP’s workplace would just throw a party at the end of the year to thank everyone.

    2. NJ Anon*

      At Oldjob we used to vote on and give out awards annually. It was a nonprofit and some were serious (Child advocate of the year) and some weren’t (class clown). Everyone had a good time with it. They got a mention at the holiday party and a cheesy little trophy.

    3. C Average*

      They seemed to have a successful program like this at an old workplace of mine. It was a state agency with about 400 people on the payroll. The recipients tended to be people who had been there a long time and made a lasting contribution. Often the award went to someone near retirement age. It had sort of a Lifetime Achievement Oscars feel to it. It didn’t feel unfair to the younger folks because the prevailing sentiment was that if you kept working there and doing your job well, you’d get your turn eventually.

      I think it helped that it wasn’t “Employee of the Year.” The title was something with “achievement” or “recognition” in it, but it happened every year at the big end-of-the-year banquet. Also, other achievements got called out at that banquet, so it wasn’t all about that one person.

      The person recognized invariably seemed surprised, cried, etc.

      1. fposte*

        We have something like this, but 1) six people can win it per year and 2) it comes with a cash award, a salary increase, and money for professional development. I think that’s a good way to do it.

    4. Cleopatra Jones*

      My child works at a local casino and I think they do an excellent job of the ’employee of the —‘ program.
      To receive ’employee of the month’, you can be nominated by anyone for exhibiting excellence in their core ideals. Every month, they have a luncheon for all of the nominated ’employees of the month’. If you win, you receive a check (based on full or part time status, she’s PT so she received $100). Even if you don’t win you still get a really nice fancy lunch in the executive ballroom.
      At the end of the year, all winners of the ’employee of the month’ are invited to a really nice awards program. Everyone dresses up, there’s an open bar, candy bar, dessert bar, swag, and a 3-course meal for everyone (attendees can bring one guest).
      My child went last year but she didn’t win the part time employee of the year but she received a super nice trophy (it was a really nice class trophy/paperweight with her name frosted into it). The actual part time employee of the year received a check for $7,500 & full time people get $15K. I think the manager of the year received $25K. It was actually pretty dang impressive.
      But other than that, I haven’t seen any other company come close to that.

    5. Mallorie, the recruiter*

      We have a big one at my place of employment that is incredibly prestigious. There are multiple winners… I want to say perhaps 20-25 runner-ups and then maybe 5 final winners (company is 50k+). They are peer and manager nominated and someone often needs multiple nominations or a hearty nomination to even make it to a final round. I’ve never heard of it causing resentment, but maybe that’s because my company is so large. They do articles on the final 20-25 and then the final winners go to a big awards dinner and are featured on our intraweb.

      Maybe not quit the same, but if I were nominated, I would die I would be so happy.

    6. AnonyMiss*

      My office seems to enjoy ours – we are all encouraged to nominate one person or even multiple people, and two employees are selected for EOY (I believe they can’t be both in the same general position; we have 4 major positions with merit steps within them). Nominations have to include a specific discussion on the why’s, circling around our mission statement, with specific examples of going above and beyond. The previous year’s EOY duo then has to tally the votes, read all recommendations, and select the next two EOYs. We call an all-office meeting pretty much specifically for this, the previous EOYs do a whole presentation around the nominees and eventual winners, and then we usually get cake. Also, the EOYs’ names are added to the perpetual plaque in the front lobby, so anyone walking in can see it.

      I have to admit… I do like the cake part.

    7. ModernHypatia*

      I’ve been on the committee for my current job for the two years my workplace has had one. We have 7 different awards for about 150 staff. Anyone can nominate, nominations go by Google form to committee of people from different roles on campus.

      The awards go for the three main categories of staff positions (professional, classified, and facilities/security), and then there are four for 1) long-time employees (more than 20ish years), 2) recent hires (last few years), 3) not often noticed or recognised or 4) have taken on particularly major projects that year.

      The nominations have some great stories, and it’s been really helpful in understanding more of why a particular person has been doing a particularly noteworthy job this year. (We also draw on the knowledge of the committee members, and occasionally go and ask for more information.) To decide, the committee all notes down their top preferences, we discuss the top three to five candidates from that for each award, do a little bit of balancing (people often qualify for more than one, so we’ve had a couple of “If X gets this award, then I prefer Y for that one.” conversations).

      Some things I really like are that everyone nominated gets a card saying they’re nominated, with a brief quote from at least one of their nomination letters. (“You’ve been nominated for X award, and Y, who nominated you, said Z”. We let people be anonymous, if they prefer, when nominating).

      The awards are announced by email, with a reception a couple of weeks later, so people can bring their families/make plans to be there (light food and drink, in the late afternoon when most people are finishing their work day). The actual award is a sign marking a reserved parking place on campus for a year (to be located in whatever lot the employee prefers), an award sign, and a certificate. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be received well, and the nomination cards, in particular, seem to matter to people.

  7. AdAgencyChick*

    In my experience, “Employee of the ____” always ends up rewarding face time over efficiency. Not a plus in my book!

    1. Laurel Gray*

      I can’t picture a remote worker being given this award unless their position was sales related and they were the top performer hands down.

      1. Chinook*

        Remote workers aren’t the only ones who would be ignored for this type of thing. Admin Assistants (who ironically enough, are the ones who end up setting up the logistics) rarely get noticed for their work (unless their boss happens to be on the committee – not out of favouritism but because boss knows what she saves him from doing). really, with a great admin, you aren’t going to notice what she is doing until she stops doing it.

    2. Marcy*

      We have Employee of the Quarter and Employee of the Year plus Superior Achievement and Teamwork awards. They are based on some sort of project that a person or a team completed that went above and beyond your normal duties. Often, those projects meant working beyond the usual 40 hours a week because we all have our “day jobs” that still have to be done. We are all exempt so none of us get overtime so the awards are much appreciated since they come with a small bonus (it is a state agency so it is not possible to get a raise or large bonus). I don’t see it as “face time” over “efficiency”.

  8. Kara Ayako*

    Wow, this is surprising to me. We have an award like this. In our company (20,000+ employees) each division recognizes one non-sales person annually. (It’s non-sales because the sales people are rewarded separately. We’re a sales-focused company, so this is a chance for non-sales people to be recognized.)

    Any employee can submit a nomination for another, and it’s considered a huge honor to be nominated. The leadership team of each division then chooses a winner (the exact method varies by division). The winner is announced usually at a divisional luncheon with a brief speech of why they won (what specifically they accomplished that showed they went above and beyond their job description) and presented with a trophy and large cash award.

    It’s not like a bonus because bonuses are built into compensation and expected if you achieve certain metrics. This is specifically to recognize people who went well beyond the call of duty and contributed something meaningful to the company.

    I’ve never heard of this fostering resentment. It’s always been a positive experience (the winner is usually surprised and overwhelmed), and even the nomination process is fun. Each nomination goes to that person and to his or her manager, and we take it as an opportunity to recognize people we consider to be rock stars.

    1. EarlGrey*

      I can see this working much better in a company that size – it would help folks get to know what’s happening in other departments, and it sounds like there are plenty of other avenues for recognition built in so folks who aren’t chosen don’t feel unrecognized. I’m guessing OP ‘s employer is small enough that choosing a single person rather than recognizing a handful of people for different accomplishments feels a bit ridiculous and competitive.

    2. fposte*

      I also think the “cash award” thing matters a lot. Not just because hey, money, great, but because that’s the traditional way that employers reward value, and it seems really meretricious for an employer to say “We think you’re great! But that’s nothing to do with financial value!”

    3. Lola*

      Kara, you must be working with adults. I work in a relatively large organization (although not anywhere near 20K-strong), and have never heard of any resentment or complaints about employee recognition. As long as the criteria are transparent, honorees are peer-nominated, and recognition is handled separately from bonuses, what’s the harm? This post and comments thread is the first time I’ve seen employee recognition discussed as something controversial.

  9. Laurel Gray*

    I am a fan of employee of the month, depending on the industry/work environment. I can see how something about one person being the best in a calendar year doesn’t sit well with everyone else, particularly if there are several high performers. Siobahn produced 576 teapots in January so she was February’s employee of the month. Fionnula produced 511 teapots in February so she is enjoying the award for this month. Fergus, Moira, Casey, Donnelly and others will go on to have strong production months in 2015. I think recognizing them individually, and maybe even mentioning the 2nd and 3rd best every month trumps adding up all of the teapots each produced and giving Rory the “Employee of the Year” award. I would think this way would be better for morale too.

    1. Steve G*

      Some sort of simple metric like this makes more sense (though feeling the need to produce too many teapots may lead to quality issues).

      This type of program brings back bad memories from past past job. If someone coded a process in VBA, they seemed to get the monthly award. There were exceptions, but I definitely noticed that pattern. The problem was that a lot of peoples’ jobs weren’t automatable, or they did a lot of ad hoc work, so there weren’t any routine tasks/processes to automate. I remember the last month I was there, someone taught someone else basic VBA (which isn’t even enough to do anything with), and lo and behold they got the award the next month, they were awarded for “fostering an environment of sharing knowledge.” Nothing wrong with that, but there was so much more going on to evaluate and reward besides VBA.

      1. De Minimis*

        We had a similar program at one point, but the union reps argued that it could compromise safety if someone was focused too much on speed.

        It was data entry work so someone who did just try to go really fast without paying attention to ergonomics probably did have a greater risk of carpal tunnel problems, which were common among the employees. I think management scrapped the production award and focused more on accuracy, which was a better thing to focus on anyway.

  10. 5U or 3U Eurorack?*

    In my first job out of college, the management at some point decided to give out an “Employee of the Month” award in order to boost morale. As you might guess – it did not. I nearly got fired over it, because the first winner of the award was showing it off to a few of us and was asked if any money came with it (no). I commented “oh, so you get a plaque in lieu of’ cash … heh, they should call it The Louie!” And indeed, that name took hold so hard that even management occasionally stumbled when announcing the latest recipient in the monthly all-hands meetings: “This month, the Lou … the Excellence in Design Automation Award …”

    1. jjw*

      We briefly had an employee of the month award that went to the person who best exemplified the “Three Rs” which was management’s latest craze. I can’t remember what the Rs were (reliability? responsiveness? ….), but the name was kind of badly chosen because we all took to saying that we “couldn’t be R’sed” about the whole thing.

  11. Zahra*

    In my company, we do the “Superhero of the month”. However, I like the way it is done: during the month, we’ll give a “Superhero” to our colleagues each time they’ve helped us. The person with the most “Superheroes” gets the monthly award (complete with a design mentioning the particular contributions and a 50$ credit at Amazon). Performance itself is rewarded with more projects, more interesting work, etc.

    1. JB*

      That sounds positive. I have several coworkers that are superheroes to me on a regular basis.

      1. Zahra*

        To add a bit more precision: helping could be as simple as emptying/filling the dishwasher, changing the toner for the technically challenged in the office, completing a project, etc. It’s just general helpfulness, being there for others that is valued in the award. Since the monetary benefit is small enough, I don’t feel slighted if the same people are chosen 2 months in a row (I can’t speak for others, though).

    2. Hlyssande*

      We used to have something like that. You could nominate someone by emailing their supervisor to put them up for it, and then whoever was nominated could pick some sort of swag.

      They don’t do them anymore.

  12. JM in England*

    A previous employer had a “Performer of the Quarter” award. A coworker in my department won it but I knew that I had definitely produced more than them. However, they had the right connections and were an excellent schmoozer. So, imho, this just made the award a glorified popularity contest.

  13. TeapotCounsel*

    I keep angling to get Allison’s Commenter-of-the-Month award, but so far… nothing.


  14. Nobody*

    My company has an employee of the year award with a cash prize. The winner has to be nominated by another employee, so we have people asking their friends to nominate them and even writing their own nomination essays for friends to submit. It has definitely created some drama.

    The company also has an underused recognition program where they give a small gift card in recognition of an achievement or effort above and beyond the call of duty. It is not done on any specific frequency — just whenever management deems someone worthy. I think this type of award is much better than employee of the year because it is not a zero-sum award.

  15. illini02*

    I truly don’t care either way about employee of the month/year/millennium award, however the fact that people get their feelings hurt so easily by them is amazing. In every job or office people know the people who are doing stellar work, whose work is fine (but nothing special) and slackers. I know I’m not the “stellar” employee, and I definitely could identify people who are. If someone is clearly outstanding and everyone knows that, to me its dumb for people to get all sad because that person is recognized. It does go back to the “everyone is special” argument. I suppose you can call it favoritism or whatever you like to try and justify the bitterness, but I don’t think its hard to see why the superstar performer may also be the bosses favorite. As long as they are treating others unfairly, its not THAT big a deal. I suppose there are really cases where the person who wins is very undeserving, but usually my thoughts are its just petty jealousy.

    1. Elsajeni*

      I feel like one issue is that, in a lot of the places that do Employee of the Month-type recognition — it seems to be popular in retail and customer service environments — everyone really is doing largely the same work, with not much variation in quality, so the awards end up being given out based on visibility or favoritism or just seemingly at random. When I was in retail, we had a monthly award where the person with the most positive customer comment cards got a special pin. The “most cards” metric sounds pretty fair on its surface, but in practice, it was hugely influenced by work location (much easier to get someone to fill out a card when you’re at the Customer Service desk, with a stack of cards handy and plenty of counter space they can write on, than when you’re out on the floor showing them to Aisle 11) and hours (freight crew works mostly while the store is closed, how are they supposed to compete?). The same person won every month, not because she gave much better customer service than everyone else — she was very nice and helpful, for sure, but not vastly better than average — but because her schedule lined up nicely with the easiest times and locations to get lots of cards. I don’t really resent her getting all those pins, but I definitely felt cynical about the system, and not at all motivated or morale-boosted by it. And if there had been a more meaningful reward than a pin at stake, I absolutely think it would have bred resentment.

      1. illini02*

        I get that, but that is kind of the nature of work. Some people have jobs that just lead to more recognition. Its much easier in general for someone in sales to get recognized for bringing in that huge client than it is for someone in support. Im not saying its “fair” but its life. At the same time though, its also MUCH more noticeable when those people aren’t performing. My last job was in account management. Unless there was something catastrophic, my job largely went unnoticed by the higher ups. Now that I’m in sales, yeah, I get a lot of credit when I have a good month. But if I have a bad month, its so easy to see that and trust me, I hear about it.

        1. Elsajeni*

          Sure — but in that case, I’d argue that you shouldn’t have a general “Employee of the Year” at all. If only salespeople ever have a realistic shot at winning, what you’re really giving out is a Salesperson of the Year award — why not just call it that? And if you’re worried that non-salespeople will feel less motivated now that they’re officially ineligible, you could add an Account Manager of the Year award, or an Admin of the Year award, or whatever. In my retail example, maybe corporate could have come up with other metrics to award pins on — one for the person with the most comment cards, sure, but how about also giving out one for the person with the lowest error rate at the fabric counter, or one for the person who unloaded the most freight boxes? I think the situation that creates resentment is where the award is presented as something that everyone could win if they just worked hard enough, but in reality the metrics it’s based on restrict it to certain groups of employees — it’s when you have a group of employees who are hearing “We love to recognize good work! Do your job well and you’ll be rewarded!”, but seeing that they’re not actually included in that “you.”

      2. BananaPants*

        Yeah, I have a relative who was a restaurant manager, and the same manager of another store kept winning the Manager of the Month award because it was based on how many customer surveys were filled out. Like this guy would win it 6 months running and was lauded for being so amazing. As it turns out, he picked up the receipts that customers left behind and had family and friends fill out the surveys for him – of course giving great ratings on their “experience”. It was not morale-boosting or motivating in the slightest because this guy figured out a way to game the system and kept getting kudos and a bonus because of it.

      3. 5U or 3U Eurorack?*

        I think you have a good point about how Employee of the Month lends itself to certain kinds of workplaces – specifically, something like retail, where everyone is more or less doing the same kind of task. In IT (just to pick an example), you typically have people doing all kinds of different things, so it’s a lot more difficult to fairly determine who is doing their job the best.

        In my experience, most of these kinds of awards are the end result of management feeling that morale is low at a workplace, so they try to come up with some scheme to “raise morale”. Typically with a budget of about $0.00. So you end up with some kind of Employee of the Month award. Or “Boss Bucks”.

        1. CatDog*

          It can also work the other way, where you have varied roles. It’s a shame but certain jobs lend themselves better to recognition than others do. I used to work at a charity, let’s say for red squirrel conservation, and the more “visible” staff (fundraisers, PR people, those directly working on the conservation programmes) were always getting praised publicly (and sometimes token financial rewards) for pulling in that huge sponsorship or getting that coverage in Big Magazine etc. Not a sniff though for the back office/support staff, such as finance, IT, legal, HR and administrators. As one of them said, if you work in marketing you could get one campaign go viral and potentially win industry awards, but if you work in finance you can’t really do anything that stands out, as it’s all process driven and built on routine.

          It’s better to reward good work within each role, rather than comparing the whole company like for like.

    2. LBK*

      I was pretty pissed when the sales guy who was already getting paid about twice as much as me got a performance award and an employee recognition award, both of which included monetary bonuses. Meanwhile my manager was telling me how valued I was and admitting the coworker was an underperformer with an attitude problem. Obviously there were a whole lot of issues there but the award program was definitely salt in the wound.

      Also I think if some roles lend themselves more easily to recognition (like sales roles vs support roles) the response as a manager isn’t to shrug and say “c’est la vie,” it’s to focus extra effort on recognizing the people in the background who probably don’t have huge commission checks and publicly visible performance metrics built into their role. If not, you’ll lose them.

    3. neverjaunty*

      I think the point is that the “Employee of the _______” programs really aren’t rewarding superstars or stellar employees when they become popularity contests or a substitute for real recognition.

      Also, a boss who plays favorites with stellar employees is not a very good manager. The whole point of management is to try and get your entire team to excel. Tolerating chronic slackers and ignoring everyone but the most “stellar” (while failing to try and help the less “stellar” employees improve) is a sign of crappy management, and employee of the ______awards don’t fix that.

  16. Mallorie, the recruiter*

    For what its worth, I would totally give an award to an employee who stayed out of the drama. LOL

    1. LBK*

      Publicly recognizing it and giving an award for it sounds like kind of a dramatic move, honestly. Although maybe that’s because in my experience the people who feel the need to call attention to the presence of drama are usually at the heart of it. I also think it’s a manager’s duty to get dramatic people in line, not just kind of publicly roll their eyes as if they have no power to fire someone who causes drama.

  17. AMG*

    Well, here’s what not to do: nominate person A for doing person B’s work, especially if you are the boss and had weekly meetings with person B regarding their progress in deploying Awesome Stuff. Not that I’ve seen that happen or anything.

  18. MH*

    I can understand the importance of recognition, but you’re hired to do a job and it’s expected of you to do so. If I was busting my hump regularly, and someone else just got recognized for one singular moment, then I would be pissed.

  19. De Minimis*

    I think we have a program where anyone can nominate anyone else. I don’t believe the decision on who gets an award is made here on-site. They usually give out several a year, and it’s a pretty wide range of employees as far as who I’ve seen win over the time I’ve been here. Not sure what they actually receive. There’s another program where people get additional time off, but I think that’s separate.

    Seen a lot of these things backfire and cause discord, especially in cases where some are recognized for their contributions toward a large project and others are overlooked when the work put in is the same.

  20. Lindrine*

    We have a really cool thing that was launched a few months ago to replace an old “shout outs” program. We use to give points to each other. We start with a set amount a month we can give to anyone who is not an executive. With the points we can get gift cards, donate to charities, or company swag. I love it.

  21. SMT*

    I’m an assistant supervisor in food & beverage and our management team is actually trying to start an employee(s) of the month program. We did have one for about 9 months, but the current management team kept rewarding so many people in one month, that they sort of ran out of (perceived) high performers to recognize, and frankly, they kind of just lost interest as it was one more thing for them to do.

    We’re proposing that assistant supervisors do the nominating, and managers can decide on one or two people to recognize each month. We’re also trying to make it so that part of the process will be to have specific reasons to have someone be awarded. For instance, extending shifts multiple times so we don’t have to close any of our locations early, or for assisting the first cook with a project while also keeping their assigned locations stocked.

    Any advice as we take this on?

  22. AT*

    It’s interesting to see the different opinions on this, and I reckon that stems from how differently these things work out when implemented by different bosses, and how differently they’re perceived in different existing workplace environments. What works among one group of people might not work among another – there’s a lot of factors at play here.

    My workplace doesn’t do these things, thankfully – instead, because of the type of work, there’s a way of calculating financially how much income each employee individually has brought in for the business. At the end of the financial year, any amount over the predicted business income that year gets divided among the employees, based on how much they’ve each brought in, percentage-wise. Sure, if I were to nitpick, I could say there’s unfairness because different people get rostered onto different shifts where there might be more opportunity to bring in income. But really, I can’t argue with plain old objective numbers – and anyway, it’s all done completely confidentially and it’s generally understood that people don’t compare their bonuses, so there’s never any competitiveness or ill-will over it.

    However – not really a /job/, but it seems relevant – I was once on a RP forum where they had “Member of the Month” for various categories (“Best Couple”, “Best Female Character”, “Best Male Character”, etc. – all for the characters played, not the people, I should clarify). I’ve seen a lot of forums do it, hadn’t been in one myself, so I approached it with an open mind. Unfortunately, the two administrators of the forum were boyfriend and girlfriend, and nominated each other in every category, then used all of their different character accounts to vote for each other (which the rest of us didn’t realize we were allowed to do until it was too late). In the end, the /only/ slot that went to a character not belonging to either of them was when everyone realized what was happening and every single other person banded together and voted me into “Best Villain” slot. It caused a /lot/ of resentment and ill-feeling towards those administrators – enough to make several people leave the forum. Not so much because the “Member of the Month” thing /meant/ anything – there was no prize or anything, just having a little picture of your character in a space in the sidebar – but because it was just the most obvious symptom of bad management and how condescending they were to their members. To this day, I think of those two administrators as shining examples of “How Not To Be” when I’m thinking of how to act in a leadership role.

  23. Not telling*

    Wow, I completely disagree with AAM here. The EOY program shouldn’t be scrapped, it should be revised. I’ve seen many great EOY programs.

    Some common features of positive EOY programs: –anyone can nominate a coworker; –the basis for a nomination should be qualitative not quantitative; –management filters the results so that the same employee or the same department doesn’t get the reward year after year (if an employee is nominated for multiple years, they should be rewarded with a raise or a promotion rather than via the EOY program), and so that the basis for the nomination is verified (i.e., asking other parties involved to verify the event to prevent ‘cheaters’); –the award should be something tangible (special parking space, gift card, extra vacation time, etc), not just an announcement or a plaque.

    Maybe OP can’t convince the organization to revise their program, but is there a company policy that states that the only recognition an employee is allowed to receive is via the EOY program? Surely OP could find -some- way to make at least her own department’s workers feel valued and recognized.

  24. Audiophile*

    My company does an Employee of the Quarter type award, but since you’re a contracted out to different sites, most sites don’t participate and most people don’t know about the award.

    The site I’m currently at participates. The first quarter I was there, it was given to the then account managers favorite person (rumored paramour) and it did not go unnoticed and certainly breeded resentment. Then it was given to me, presumably, as of cooling things off. It cheapened my experience in many ways since, even though I know I was going above and beyond, it wasn’t really about me or my work, it was about putting a stop to the resentment and chatter.

    The award is a plaque and gift card (formerly a check, but since one of their major clients is a payment issuing company, they stopped offering checks). It hasn’t been given out consistently in several years and more people than not, have been fired and/or quit after getting the award. Needless to say, I don’t think they need to bring the award back and I hope I don’t see it again.

  25. Cassie*

    I’m glad our office doesn’t have something like this – in our office, certain individuals working high-profile projects (or maybe because their title alone is high-profile) get the majority of the attention. So they would be the ones who get recognized while the line staff working in the back office get nothing. Even if we had open nominations, I could see it still being unfair (certain coworkers would campaign to be nominated, etc). If you do something truly outstanding (and that’s a bit difficult to judge, at least for our dept), it’s nice to get a shout-out in faculty meeting. But anything more than that is unnecessary (for me). I know some other coworkers would want a plaque and presentation ceremony for doing something that is on their job description.

    I don’t really get the point of plaques. My boss loves them (he has a bunch on his wall) and it makes sense if you win National Chocolate Teapot Designer of the Year or something, but for everything else, it’s just a little silly. I used to get participation trophies in piano when I was a kid – it’s like that.

  26. Callie*

    We always had “teacher of the year”. Principal would ask for nominations and the top five or six most-nominated would be put on a ballot and voted on by the faculty. I was nominated seven times in fourteen years and never once actually got teacher of the year. That really stung, even though something like “teacher of the year” does not matter one iota whatsoever.

  27. JMegan*

    I used to work for an organization that did this, and as far as I could see, it worked pretty well. There were two awards for EOTY – an individual award and a team award. These were decided by senior management. Then there were also peer awards, where anybody could nominate a colleague for any reason. I think there were four peer awards per year – one for each office, awarded in the spring and in the fall. There were also 5-year, 10-year, etc awards, and each manager had a small budget for thank yous throughout the year as well.

    So I think the key is that EOTY was part of a larger recognition program, within a culture that recognized achievement in multiple ways.

    My only complaint is that the EOTY, whether individual or team, was never, ever from the Corporate Services division. No matter how stellar a job the Finance, HR, or IT people did, no matter if they implemented a new training program or a new CRM or saved the company buckets of money, the awards always went to the operational areas. So for those who are administering these kinds of awards, don’t forget the people who operate in the background, keeping the lights on and making things easier for the rest of the group!

  28. AW*

    “because they stayed out of the drama.”

    It sounds like two major problems with this is there’s no criteria for choosing the winner and they managed to turn awarding one person into a way to chastise everyone else.

    What does “drama” even mean here? Is it not gossiping about a new hire or is it not complaining about poor work conditions? Is the the takeaway from this supposed to be “don’t bring your personal business to work” or “don’t bring legitimate complaints about co-workers to your boss”?

    They could easily fix this by tying the nominations and award to actual business results. Nominate people for bringing in more revenue, reducing costs, bringing in more customers, etc. Maybe for community recreation that takes the form of completing repairs ahead of schedule or successfully getting a grant to expand park trails but there should be specific, measurable benefits tied to the award.

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