Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abandon the Chotchkies and Focus on Employees

by Mitchell Derman

Fans of the film Office Space probably remember the restaurant Chotchkies. Jennifer Aniston played a server. The relentless restaurant manager ridiculed her constantly for not wanting to wear more "pieces of flair." Having worked at Bennigan's -- a Chotchkies wannabe -- during my college years, I can remember wearing all those silly pins on my suspenders. Thinking about the movie scene, it was evident that those "pieces of flair" had nothing to do with motivating the Chotchkies employee to perform her job better.

A recent Harvard Business Review article examines "What Motivates Workers." According to a survey of people managers, what motivates workers most is recognition, e.g., e-mail acknowledgment with the team copied, public recognition in an all-hands or staff meeting for a job well done, etc. However, according to a study of employees, what really motivates employees is progress, e.g., that they feel a sense of accomplishment.

What is the Implication for Organizations?

Since the economic downturn began in 2008, so many organizations have had to eliminate and/or significantly reduce many employee-friendly benefits, including tuition reimbursement, 401k match and training. There also have been salary freezes and layoffs. In this environment, many organizations focused much of their attention on non-financial incentives in order to retain their top talent. Based on the study mentioned in HBR, it seems that this type of recognition may have been the wrong approach. Whether it's completing or making headway on a project, developing a new solution to a problem or finalizing a strategic plan, employees want to feel that they are accomplishing something special that contributes to their own sense of well-being and for the benefit of their colleagues.

My Own Experience

According to the article, organizations should "avoid impeding progress by changing goals autocratically, being indecisive, or holding up resources. Negative events generally have a greater effect on people's emotions, perceptions, and motivation than positive ones, and nothing is more demotivating than a setback."

Having worked at AOL from 2003 to 2006, I can certainly relate to "negative events impeding progress." Those years were an interesting time for the company. Broadband had become a reality and AOL's dial-up customer base was migrating to cable and DSL in droves. While the company started to get its mojo back on the advertising side, it struggled to innovate and develop new disruptive technologies and user-friendly tools as it had done long ago with Instant Messenger.

I sense that this lack of innovation stemmed from the fact there were always rumors of layoffs around the corner. There were always re-organizations, new management and new strategies. One of the quotes I would always hear was: "The only thing constant at AOL is change." The constant change certainly impeded the ability for employees to accomplish their goals, which adversely affected employee morale.

Overcome the "It's not our day job" Mindset

The main challenge with employee communications is that employees have their day jobs, and are not necessarily compensated to pay attention to the Intranet, newsletter articles, company blogs and all the other internal channels. I always tell my media relations/external PR peers that reporters may not cover you the way you want them to, but at least they will listen to you because it's their job to cover your organization's marketplace.

So it's important to focus on delivering communications that can help employees be better at their jobs. Don't get me wrong, giveaways and branding campaigns can be part of an overall employee communications program, but they need to be coupled with real value-added information that helps employees accomplish their work and further develop their careers. The last thing you want is for a program to be perceived as a gimmick. Next thing you know and all those coffee cups, t-shirts and pens appear on eBay.

Thanks to Elizabeth Lupfer for helping me shape this post and bring out the right tone. Read her blog, The Social Workplace. If you have an idea for an article about employee communications or would like to be a guest blogger, feel free to e-mail me at Also feel free to send me any photos of chotchkies received at work. And remember, Friday is "Hawaiian Shirt Day."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Mitch... and always nice to collaborate with like-minded former colleagues. I love the point that your post is making: that employees value recognition and appreciation much more so than frivolous giveaways. As you point out, this is especially so in our ever changing times and current economy. When we choose to include tangible objects as part of our employee communications plan, we always make sure that it specifically supports our objectives and directs employees to the intranet, portal or landing page which provides additional information and value to the employee -- specifically, a campaign to communicate business priorities comes to mind. As you know, being from the days of AOL where we often received "chotchkies" (many of which I still have) ... sometimes it's nice to have that visual and fun reminder of why it's nice to be a team player in a company that strives to be an employer of choice.