The Worlds Worst Employee Recognition Program: This Takes The Cake

Marisa Keegan Bad HR, Culture, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, Marisa Keegan, Recognition


One of my guilty pleasures is the reality show Cake Boss. Buddy
and his stereotypical brass, word
spitting, food loving, Italian family remind me of everything I loved about growing
up amongst a slew of Tonys in my New York Italian family. And Buddy and crew crack
me up as they wave their arms, yell instead of talk, and make chaos out of
nothing. It’s a blissful 30 minutes. Except when Buddy had to go poking his nose in my business:
Employee Recognition. This one is so bad it might even beat out the manager who gave the deaf guy an ipod.


On a recent episode Buddy started out gathering the
employees and announcing that he was creating an Employee of the Month program.
He would choose the winner and recognize them with a plaque on the wall.

My first thought: Nice try… but… LAME

Mistake #1

Buddy, you have a building full of some of the most talented
artists/designers in the country and the most creative thing you can come up
with to recognize them is the world’s most over-used award, Employee of the

How about awarding them with something that would
allow them
to use their creativity? Maybe they’d get first dibs on which cake they want to
work on, or they’d get to design an entire cake for a client on their own. Pick
a fun name that revolves around artists and creativity and run with it. Anything
would have been better than “Employee of the Month.”

Good Example:

Rackspace, we had the Straightjacket Award which was an actual straightjacket given
out each month to the person in the company who was so over the top fanatical
that they needed to be restrained. It was thought up by employees and coveted
by recipients.  

My point: Get
creative with your recognition programs and base them around what employees are
jazzed up by.

Mistake #2

Over the next 15 minutes, my blood pressure continued to rise
while I watched in horror as Buddy’s family members bribed him with hugs,
kisses, and his favorite food in an attempt to win the award.

When one person (or even a small team) is in charge of
selecting a winner, it tends to be those who are most visible to that person who
will win. It’s impossible for them to accurately know what everyone in the company is doing. Instead of having one or two
people in charge of picking a winner, good reward programs should be based on
feedback from employees. Great recognition programs are those that are
completely run by employees.

Good Examples:

At Zappo’s and Snag-A-Job, employees are allowed to give
spot bonus’ to any co-worker whom they feel has gone above and beyond. They don’t
have to ask permission or fill out crap-tons of paperwork. They just give that
person a bonus – no questions asked.

At Snag-A-Job, they hold an annual Snaggies Award Ceremony
where employees vote on which of their co-workers deserve awards such as:

  • The Gilligan Snaggy – The
    person you could count on most if deserted on an island
  • The Mother Theresa Snaggy –
    The person most involved and giving back to the community
  • The Elmer’s Glue Snaggy – The
    most fanatical about the culture
  • The Chris Farley Memorial Snaggy – The funniest Snagger

My point: Get
creative with your recognition programs and base them around what employees are
jazzed up by. Get employees involved in picking the winners. Recognition means
the most when it’s coming from all directions.

The Epic: Mistake #3

By the last few minutes of the show, I’d settled into the
fact that Buddy had tried his best and that at least he was doing something to
build morale at the cake shop. It was finally time for him to unveil the plaque
holding the photo of the winner and my interest was definitely piqued.

After 30 minutes of build-up, and anxiously waiting for
Buddy to live up to his promise, I about died when I realized that he gave the
Employee of the Month award to himself because, “I’m the one who works the
hardest around here”. Epic Fail!

A move like this directly undermines any type
of recognition and in no way helps build morale amongst employees.

Dear Buddy,

Bad move, man. Bad move. However, because I love ya, and we’re
family, I’ll trade you one of my recognition programs for a big cake in the
shape of an Employee of the Month plaque that I can throw off the top of your
building – to symbolize the end of your terrible recognition program. You game?

As for the rest of you, what types of recognition programs
have you seen that are truly successful? How about some that have been a big