11 Terrible Employee Reward Ideas and What You Should Do Instead

Ross Brooks
11 Terrible Employee Reward Ideas and What You Should Do Instead

Employee rewards might seem fairly straightforward, but it’s not as simple as handing out a bonus every time someone performs well, or trying to boost productivity with a quirky treat.

The worst thing that can happen is that your new incentives come across as a gimmick. Either your team will see straight through your attempts to coax their behaviour, or your new initiative will be so off-putting that they’ll wish you hadn’t even bothered in the first place.

However, this hasn’t stopped online sources from offering 1001 ill-conceived employee reward ideas. We trawled the internet and gathered together the most ridiculous suggestions that we encountered. After you’re suitably amused and bemused, we’ll tell you how to develop employee reward ideas that actually work.

1. Jeans Day

“Give out coupons that allow employees to wear jeans on a day of their choosing, or designate an all-employee jeans day.”

Even traditionally formal industries like banking and finance have started to relax their dress code, and most of the world’s top companies realise that what you wear to work isn’t that important. If you do plan on giving your employees coupons for jeans day, try and do it with a straight face.

2. Lottery Tickets

“Give them the chance to win millions, and it only costs you one dollar.”

It also makes you look like a total cheapskate. The chances of winning the Euromillions are 1 in 139,838,160; maybe your team might appreciate the 1 in 139,838,160 chance that they won’t have to show up next Monday?

3. Monopoly Money

“Reward employees with your own custom phony money (or use Monopoly money) and allow them to redeem it for gifts at the end of each quarter.”

Who doesn’t love fake money? Maybe while you’re at it, you can start a black market so that people can trade their monopoly money with others for cigarettes and organs?

Don't give your employees monopoly money

4. DJ Day

“If you have music playing in your office and there’s not already a mandatory soundtrack, consider offering the ability to choose the music for the day as a reward for employees.”

How well do you know your team’s music tastes? Are you sure you can handle a whole day of Maroon 5? Or maybe you prefer the Black Eyed Peas mixed in with a bit of Meatloaf? Delicious.

5. Dunk Machine

“Set up a dunking machine in your parking lot. Go sit in there (in some business attire you don’t mind getting destroyed), and let your employees throw softballs at the target. It’s a fun release for them, and shows you’re one of the team.”

Unless the relationships within your team resemble those from Lord of the Flies, it’s unlikely anyone is going to find this fun. It’s also a bizarre amount of effort to go to. Why not just take everyone to visit a real carnival instead?

6. Talking Plaque / Fish

“Buy one of the talking photo frames available at any photo store. Place a certificate of appreciation inside, and record a personal 10-second message of appreciation in your own voice. If you’re not a fan of plaques, hire someone to rewire a “Billy Bass” or “Frankie Fish” talking fish to convey your gratitude with attitude.”

A talking fish in the office

7. Music Video Day

“Have employees create a music video (shoot, edit and show) of their favourite song. The Gangnam style song has about run its course, but the Harlem Shake and whatever is trending on YouTube is fun.”

We did the Mannequin Challenge at a company offsite once, and it was dated before I even had a chance to WhatsApp the video to my mum. It’s time to let the dream of a being a director go.

8. Singing Telegram

“Have a gorilla, or whatever creature is available, show up at work with a singing telegram about how great the employee is. Videotape the song and response and post it on YouTube or your website.”

As an introvert, this idea fills me with terror. Not only are people going to be alarmed when a singing gorilla shows up at the office, the lucky recipient might just die of embarrassment.

9. Show and Tell

“Set aside one day a month for “Show and Tell.” Cater in lunch and have employees bring in something from home (hobby, accomplishment, video game, etc.) to “show and tell” other employees about. It doesn’t have to be a trophy, just an interest—such as a cake recipe (with samples), a new video game.”

It’s fun to share your interests with coworkers and develop relationships at work, but not when everyone is forced to sit around and hear about the latest video game you’ve been playing. Why not get people to do a “lunch and learn’ instead? It’s not exactly a reward, but it can give people a sense of pride in their work, without treating them like they’re still at primary school.

Member of the finance team giving a presentation

10. Let Them Eat Cake

“Any celebration is that much better when there’s yummy cake.”

We all love cake, but you can’t really call it a reward. Apart from the fact eating cake every week isn’t going to do anyone’s health any favours, it shows that you’re not putting much effort into making your rewards personal to your team. Not everyone has a sweet tooth – and you wouldn’t want to meet the same end as Marie Antoinette.

11. King for a Day

“Buy an elaborate costume jewellery kind of crown (the more elaborate and gaudy, the better) and crown them during a morning meeting. “King” for the day privileges includes primo parking, free lunch at their desk and the option to leave 30 minutes early from work.”

For anyone familiar with the Stanford Prison Experiment, during which volunteers were assigned as « guards » or « prisoners » in a mock prison, you can probably see how this one might go wrong. People are unlikely to take well to an fake “king”, especially when they get to parade around the office in full costume with special privileges.

The Seven Deadly Flaws of Employee Rewards

Ultimately, most employee reward ideas don’t work because it’s easy to see through them. “If you do this, then I’ll give you this,” is a mistake that many managers make. Rewards are meant to be a way to celebrate good work, not coerce people into carrying out specific tasks.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, by Daniel H. Pink, is essential reading to understand more about rewards. Before we continue, it’s important to understand intrinsic motivation, which is when we do something because we find it personally rewarding, as opposed to extrinsic motivation, which is when we do something in order to receive a reward (like money and fame) or to avoid punishment.

Pink’s book highlights seven undesirable behaviours:

  1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation.
  2. They can diminish performance.
  3. They can crush creativity.
  4. They can crowd out good behavior.
  5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior.
  6. They can become addictive.
  7. They can foster short-term thinking.

Rewards Need to Be Unexpected, Personal and Meaningful

It’s important to remember that rewards won’t undermine intrinsic motivation for dull tasks because there is no intrinsic motivation to begin with, but if you’re going to use extrinsic rewards, then they should be unexpected and offered only after a task is completed.

Ensure that baseline rewards like hourly rates, salaries and benefits are adequate and fair – especially when compared with people doing the same kind of work for similar companies. According to Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, these are known as hygiene factors, which won’t increase motivation, but when lacking can lead to a decrease in motivation. Without a healthy baseline, any kind of motivation is difficult, if not impossible.

Once you’ve built a foundation you can start thinking about more original ways to reward your employees. One of the biggest changes has to do with mindset. Instead of thinking about ways you can “motivate people” you need to start thinking about how you can “make people feel valued on a more regular basis and celebrate big wins in an authentic way.”

Instead of listing hundreds of employee reward ideas, we’ll include some of our favourites below and explain why they work so you can start coming up with some ideas of your own:

  • Extra holiday days
  • Team breakfast, lunch or dinner
  • Massages, spa days and sports events
  • Handwritten thank you notes
  • Time off for volunteering and personal projects
  • Covering a major expense
  • Off-site events
  • Paying for training and development outside of work
  • A surprise equipment upgrade

What makes the ideas above different is that they’re a combination of unexpected, personal and meaningful.

Unexpected

One of the biggest problems with employee reward ideas happens when people start to perceive them as controlling. Using an “if-then” approach to rewards will interfere with an employee’s sense of autonomy and eventually lead to a decrease in motivation. Researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy, the other half relying on top-down direction. The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.

Personal

Knowing the names of people in your team is a good start, but you’ll need to know more than that to make rewards work. Instead of giving the die-hard football fan in your team a spa day, why not buy them a ticket for an upcoming game instead? When a reward is more personal, it’s also more memorable because it makes people feel valued. One study by the American Psychological Association found that those who report feeling more valued are much more likely to be motivated to do their very best and recommend their workplace to others.

Meaningful

Making rewards personal requires having a basic understanding of the people on your team, but making them meaningful requires much more in-depth knowledge. Maybe you know that one of your top performers has a new baby and recently had to pay for some repairs to their home, so you decide to reward them by paying for a month of daycare or letting them work from home for a week so that they can be with their family and oversee the repair work.

Key Takeaways

If you’re still thinking about rewards as a way to get people to do what you want, then you need to change your mindset. Rewards are a tangible way to show employees that you value their contribution. Rewards don’t have to be expensive, but it’s better to spend a bit of money than try to convince people that their new “best employee” mug actually required some thought and consideration on your part.

Focus on making rewards unexpected, personal and meaningful.

Most people just want to know that they’re doing a good job, which is why recognition is vital, but when someone goes above and beyond it’s still important that you reward them.

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