U.S. businesses spent $90 billion on non-cash incentives for staff in 2015. Only 26 percent of businesses offered any non-cash options. "The biggest obstacle to finding incentives is just that everyone's motivator is different. Some people are more motivated by money, others by praise, others by time off," says Jennifer Perry, chief administrative officer at Norwood Clinic. "Trying to make it an incentive everyone wants is difficult."
For their 90th anniversary, Norwood Clinic gave employees t-shirts and bags and took them and their families to a Barons baseball game. "Some people were stoked to bring their family, and it was a great motivator," Perry says. "Others didn't want to participate. They thought of it as just one more work thing to do."
Even incentives that work on the majority of employees seem to lose their impact over time. "Typically every year we do Christmas bonuses. Unfortunately they're no longer a surprise, so they don't feel like a bonus," Perry says.
Perry found the same problem with goal-based bonuses for higher level employees. "The problem with those type of bonuses is they did these three things to achieve the bonus, but these other ten things that they've always done well are now suffering," she says.
If the bonus is quarterly, the employee may have gone a couple of quarters meeting those criteria before they start showing the lag. "Now that person has started thinking of them not as bonuses, but as part of their pay," she says. It loses its drive factor and can cause more problems than it solves. "Some people do really well in that system, but it's not for all employees."
Robby Carruba, administrative director at Neurosurgical Associates, says the ceaseless changes in initiatives from programs like Meaningful Use have drained staff tremendously. But it formed an opportunity for incentives. "If we met certain goals that resulted in increased revenue, we committed to sharing a piece of the pie with staff," he says.
"I don't think you can teach motivation," Carruba says. "You can create it if you need to, but it's only temporary. Motivation comes from within. But loyalty can feed motivation. And the way you keep an employee loyal is to be appreciative and include them in the decision-making processes."
For Carruba and his coordinators of the 17 employees at the practice, one form of appreciation takes the form of openly complimenting individuals. "Verbal commendation goes a long way, especially in front of their peers," he says.
Joseph Bolen IV
Joseph Bolen IV, chief operating officer at the fertility clinic AIRM-Alabama, prefers handwritten thank-you notes sent to the employee's home. "It seems personal, thought-out, and they're surprised," he says. Plus opening the note among their family that night feels more like a special commendation.
Perry sees another advantage to sending incentives to the home. "If an employee is disgruntled, they take that home with them, and their family can make it better or worse depending on how they react to those comments," she says.
So on each staffer's birthday, the clinic sends a tin of homemade cookies to their home. "They're customized with 'Norwood Clinic,' and cost around $25," she says. "This way, the family gets to participate in the treat." When the next bad day rolls around, the goodwill generated with the family may temper their reaction and lessen the employee's bad feelings.
Bolen agrees that the participation of family and friends can boost the impact of an incentive. When he worked at a large hospital, ten employees would be chosen each month to be honored at a special 30-minute presentation. "The CEO would talk about these people and provide examples throughout the month of why they won," Bolen says. The family and friends of each award winner would also attend the ceremony. "That inclusion of family can make a difference. And seeing your peers getting such attention motivates coworkers to want to win."
Time-off can also be a powerful motivator, says Perry. To spur the front desk to be more vigorous about collections, Perry offered the department four hours off with pay if they met a certain goal. "We've seen behavior changes in people from that," she says. "It's hard to say I need this additional $35 from your last visit. But now they're more forceful when someone says they can't pay."
The perfect incentive for an entire staff remains elusive. "You put time into an event and want everyone to enjoy it and, for a majority, they do. But there are some people that are just not going to be happy with whatever you give them," Perry says. "And you have to look past that and take pride in the ones that did appreciate it."