Four Ways Companies Are Bringing  Employee Rewards Programs Into the 21st Century

Trust and accountability are two pillars of a successful modern workforce. So how do you make employees feel trusted and accountable?  At these four firms, employee rewards programs are one way to start.


According to a 2013 study, 83 percent of employees feel that being recognized for their achievements at work is more important than cash rewards or gifts. But the way that companies celebrate the people who work for them is changing rapidly, and the old-fashioned “employee of the month” plaque is fast becoming a thing of the past. These four companies who have taken radical approaches to recognizing their employees and are reaping the benefits of a happier workforce in return.

 Employee rewards
1. Give Managers the Tools and Flexibility They Need

Yankee Candle has been the best-selling candle brand in the United States for the last 45 years. What was once a small operation based out of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is now a worldwide brand, with over 19,000 authorized retailers around the globe. When the company expanded globally, its employee-recognition program — which gives employees gifts related to the company’s history after they have been with Yankee Candle for a certain number of years — lagged behind. Gifts were being given without much thought, and major employee milestones were passing without appropriate celebration. To revitalize the program, they turned to technology and created a toolkit.

Every manager in a Yankee Candle store or office now has access to an electronic “Best Loved Employees” toolkit that includes guidelines for tailoring the employee recognition program to specific employees. This allows each manager to design a rewards program suited to his or her own employees, ensuring that the recognition never feels formulaic or forced. By standardizing the toolkit, rather than standardizing the rewards themselves, Yankee Candle has created a program that is “95 percent hands free,” but which internal employee surveys uniformly rated as “sensational.”

“As a company that is committed to its customers and continued growth, we realize the importance of fully recognizing each employee’s individual contributions,” says Donna Vance, Yankee Candle benefits and administrative services manager.

2. Facilitate Peer-to-Peer Recognition

At gift company Cloud 9 Living, every Tuesday includes an all-hands meeting during which employees talk informally about what’s going on in the office, their lives and the world, before reading from what they call the G Book. The G Book — or good book — is a volume written by the employees themselves. It sits in the lobby all week, giving team members a place to write down impressive things their colleagues have accomplished. The notes can be anything from making a big sale to bringing killer baked goods into the office, and they give the office a chance to recognize the little things that go into making Cloud 9 a happy place to work.

The G Book is a form of peer-to-peer recognition, a cutting edge corporate practice that provides a refreshing, light-hearted alternative to more formal “top-down” employee recognition. Giving employees the ability to celebrate each other for achievements big and small is an easy way to make sure that everyone feels recognized — and all for the price of a lined notebook.

Employee rewards

3. Empower Teams to Encourage Each Other

Staten Island University Hospital is a teaching hospital in New York City. Like all hospitals, some of its most important employees — the transport staff — are among the least recognized. The transport staff  is responsible for moving patients from one wing of the hospital to another. When they move quickly, the hospital functions well, costs stay down and patients get better faster. When the team slows down, everything slows down.

In 2012, the hospital found that their transport staff was only averaging 2.2 patient moves per hour — a tick below the industry standard of 2.26. To encourage their employees to move a little quicker, they instituted the “Go the Extra Mile” program, which gave employees an opportunity to nominate each other for recognition whenever they noticed a coworker moving fast, providing a fun, low-key way of encouraging workers to get the lead out. The program was a hit, and the hospital blew past its target of 2.26 moves per hour to 2.8 — well above the average. “What the GEM program does is recognize the good of what we’re doing and put it on paper,” says Melissa Napolitano, Diagnostic Imaging Manager at the hospital. “It’s not like, ‘I’m the manager telling you what to do.’ It’s ‘We’re a team and we’re trying to do this, and you get rewarded for it.’ So it makes it fun.”

4. Make It Fun

UX designer Slice of Lime, now part of Pivotal, is in the business of “creating amazing experiences” for its clients to share with the people who visit their websites, and since its founding in 2001, the Boulder-based company also strived to create amazing experiences for its employees. Much of this work has been accomplished through company happy hours, generous benefits packages and flexible work hours that let its employees pursue hobbies that vary from home brewing to Nordic skiing. But none of that is quite as eye catching as the big green hand.

In 2014, Slice of Lime employees began passing around a giant, green porcelain hand to celebrate each other’s accomplishments. At the end of each month, the person with the statue hands it off to someone else. The gift is accompanied by a short speech, and the company chips in to buy a small present to go along with it. It’s a simple, fun tradition that has less to do with the employee’s productivity than simply being “awesome.”

“‘Awesome’ typically means being super helpful, doing great client work, learning quickly as a new hire or simply just being an all-around nice person,” wrote lead UX designer Chris Alvarez. “There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the Green Hand.”