If an “average” person will work more than 90,000 hours over a lifetime, how many hours will an “exceptional” person work? And by exceptional, do we mean one who is exceptionally talented or one who bills an exceptional amount of hours? If an employer wants to attract employees in either category, they need to be creative in terms of incentives and recognition. What once were added benefits, are now differentiators that not only help attract and retain talent, but also set one company culture apart from another.

It may be surprising to hear that the attorneys of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, have “recess days,” and periodically, can be found playing kickball at Redbirds Stadium, on a ropes course in Shelby Farms, or playing dodge ball at Envision Fitness. The advertisers at Archer Malmo receive a finder’s fee upon the hire of a new employee they referred along with a match of the fee when that employee reaches their first anniversary. And the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art gives a bi-yearly enrichment grant used for professional development to its deserving employees.

What does your company do to incentivize and recognize its people?

“I feel like we’re particularly good at work/life balance and accommodating the needs of employees,” says Martha Hample, SVP, Director of Operations, Archer Malmo. “Some of those needs are met via daily lunch orders, fully stocked snacks and beverages, and a bike garage inside the office. But everyone’s favorite perk is bring your dog to work — every day if you want. For that matter bring your cat, hedgehog, child, or mother to work when necessary.”

Archer Malmo also offers unlimited personal time off, which has become common with companies, including Hemline Tailored Brand Strategies. “As long as the work is getting done on time and in a high-quality manner, we want you to go to your child’s school program or take time for a mammogram without having to worry about logging every hour or making up the time,” says Cynthia Saatkamp, owner and partner of Hemline.

Recognition for a job well done has not lost its luster, but it needs to be authentic and customized to the individual. Employee-of-the-month type awards have grown stale and expected. Just because there is a recognition program in place does not mean that all of your employees will automatically feel as though their contributions are appreciated.

One of Saatkamp’s favorite recognition practices at Hemline is an old-fashioned show-and-tell. “At our weekly staff meetings we start with kudos and atta-gals, by showing printed or digital applications that someone finished to much acclaim, but others in the office might not have seen. It puts everyone in a good frame of mind and reminds us all of the generous spirit that we share,” says Saatkamp.  

Unexpected, informal recognition is important because it is about feeling special. It is hard to feel that way from a corporate program where everyone gets the same thing, like a five-year plaque. To be effective, recognition needs to come from those held in high regard, such as one’s manager.

Charles Gaushell, Chief Idea Architect, Paradigm Marketing & Creative, has found it invaluable to spend a dedicated hour per month, one-on-one with every employee. “We discuss whatever they want — anything is on the table. The goal in mind is personal development, whether it has anything to do with Paradigm or not, to encourage them as individuals and to truly understand their personal desires. If they want to focus on something to grow, I want to help them. I think they would tell you it is nice to know an employer cares about them beyond what the company can get out of them.”

Another way employers can encourage growth is by providing professional development opportunities. From attending conferences or workshops, enrolling in local leadership classes, or serving on boards, professional development training programs allow employees to connect with others, hone leadership skills, and prepare for positions of greater responsibility. But it can also help employers attract top job candidates, retain their best workers, and identify future leaders.

Incentives and recognition are most powerful when they are tied to desired behavior or performance. But no matter the form, or lack thereof, it sends a message to your employees about what the company values most. If your employees value their incentives and recognition, you will get better results.

Andrea Wiley is director of account management at DCA Creative Communications Consulting, and is an adjunct professor teaching advertising at the University of Memphis. She can be reached at [email protected]