The concept of employee rewards might seem fairly straightforward — you take the proverbial carrot and use it to reinforce and encourage good behaviours. However, if your intention is to hand out a bonus every time someone performs well, you’re probably not going to get the most out of your reward initiative — nor your people.
A good employee reward programme in nuanced, celebrates great achievements, and requires careful consideration. If you rush to come up with a list of employee rewards and implement them poorly, then a lot more is at risk than you might originally think.
Despite this, the internet is littered with 1001 “best” employee reward ideas. We scoured the web and gathered together eleven of the most ridiculous suggestions we could find as an example of how good intentions can go badly wrong.
We’ll also be explaining the seven negative outcomes of bad employee reward initiatives, and will provide you with a detailed guide for developing meaningful employee rewards ideas that will actually work for your team.
Eleven of the internet’s “best” employee reward ideas
Before we get stuck into the academic theory of employee rewards and provide you with the real advice, let’s start with some left-field reward suggestions from the first page of Google.
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, at least try to do it with a straight face.
2. Lottery Tickets 🎰
“Give them the chance to win millions, and it only costs you one dollar.”
It can also make you look like a bit of a cheapskate and is overtly low-effort. The chances of winning Europe’s Euromillions lottery, for example, are 1 in 139,838,160; so it’s almost a certainty that you’ll be rewarding your team with disappointment.
3. Monopoly Money 💸
“Reward employees with your own custom phoney money (or use Monopoly money) and allow them to redeem it for gifts at the end of each quarter.”
Not only does this suggest that you don’t consider your employees’ efforts to be worth a real bonus, but Monopoly currency has the added bonus of being infantilising as well.
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.”
Most people working in an open plan office have already realised that headphones are the kindest way to listen to music in public. Think how this reward idea might impact the rest of the team.
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 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.”
Straight from the David Brent School of Management… enough said.
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’ll be honest — we did the Mannequin Challenge at a company off-site once and it was (fortunately) out-of-date before we had the chance to upload the footage online. If you want to reward your team with a creative outlet, it’s a much better idea give them the autonomy to do it in their actual role.
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, but if it happened to me, I might also 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 it is forced. Why not get people to do a “lunch and learn” instead? It’s not really a reward (neither is a “show and tell”), but it can give people a sense of pride in their work, without treating them like they’re still at school.
10. Let Them Eat Cake 🎂
“Any celebration is that much better when there’s yummy cake.”
We all love cake, but is it really a good reward? Apart from the fact that 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 don’t want to meet the same end as Marie Antoinette.
11. King/Queen 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 include primo parking, free lunch at their desk and the option to leave 30 minutes early from work.”
Let’s ignore “free lunch at their desk” for a minute. 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 a fake “king”, especially when they get to parade around the office in full costume with special privileges.
The seven potential risks of bad 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 for understanding the psychology behind human motivation. In it, Pink highlights seven negative effects of the “carrot and stick” approach to rewarding employees:
- It can extinguish intrinsic motivation
- It can diminish performance
- It can crush creativity
- It can crowd out good behaviour
- It can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviour
- It can become addictive
- It can foster short-term thinking
Employee reward ideas need to be unexpected, personal and meaningful
If you’re going to use rewards to motivate your team, then you need to do it wisely. Rewards shouldn’t just be used as a tool to manipulate behaviour, instead they be used as a form of recognition, and to signify to employees that you genuinely value their contributions. So, what makes a reward effective?
Firstly, financial rewards should be off the table (this might be surprising to some). In Drive, Pink highlights the large body of evidence that suggests that monetary rewards don’t actually increase motivation levels at all.
According to Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory, financial factors only affect motivation when they are lacking. For example, if your team’s salaries are below a level where they can comfortably support themselves, they are obviously going to be demotivated. However, if your team are already fairly compensated for their work, then additional monetary bonuses will have little to no impact on overall motivation.
Effective rewards are all about making people feel valued on a regular basis and celebrating successes in an authentic way. You can do this by making sure that they are unexpected, personal and meaningful.
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 relied 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 employee turnover.
Knowing the names of people in your team is a good start, but you need 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 personal it’s also more memorable – it makes people feel genuinely valued. A study by the American Psychological Association found that those who report feeling more valued are much more likely to be motivated to do their best and recommend their workplace to others.
Making rewards personal requires having a basic understanding of the people on your team, but making them meaningful requires a little more thought. Maybe you know that one of your team members has a new baby and recently had to pay for some repairs to their home. You could demonstrate that you value their recent efforts by paying for daycare and giving them the freedom to work remotely for a week so they can oversee the work. A gesture like this requires personal knowledge about your employee and an understanding of what would make a difference to them. When it isn’t tied to performance or the completion of a deadline, it has the added bonus of being unexpected too.
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 is better to spend a bit of money than try to convince people that their ‘Jeans Day coupon’ 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.