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Forget the Cash: 5 Thoughtful Ways to Reward Employees

Matt Krumrie

Career Advice Columnist

The ineffectiveness of traditional performance reviews is yesterday's news. But as the season of giving approaches, smart HR pros realize the traditional end-of-year cash bonus — while of course accepted and much appreciated — also needs a reboot. Simply showing employees the money may not be the most effective motivational and engagement tool for today’s changing workforce.

In fact, the best organizations recognize and reward employees at all levels with incentives that go beyond year-end cash awards, says Jim Greenway, executive vice president, marketing and sales effectiveness for Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career transition and outplacement organization. "These incentives should take into account the personal interests, needs and goals of the individual," says Greenway.

One effective incentive could be something everyone wants: The gift of time. A few extra days off can really refresh and energize. Follow up on those days off by sending a basket of fruit or picnic basket with a "thank you" note for all their dedication and hard work. "If the employee has spent countless hours at work, think about what he or she might have sacrificed in order to be your high performer," says Lisa Orndorff, an HR business partner in the HR department for the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM).

Jena Brown, a Twin Cities-based talent acquisition operations consultant, says company size, industry and culture all play key roles in the type of awards and recognition organizations dole out. Possibilities include the exotic — renting a Ferrari for a top performer for the weekend, or the helpful — such as personal services like home housecleaning or hiring a landscaping pro to help an employee plant flowers in the spring.

Beyond formal year-end reward programs, here are a few more suggestions for recognizing employees at all levels, according to a variety of HR experts:

1. Gift cards that don't suck: Selecting gift certificates based on employees' interests (or that align with a company's values) shows an extra level of appreciation and acknowledgement, says Greenway. For example, movie theater gift certificates for the movie buff, tickets to the big game for the sports fan; live music/theatre tickets for the employee into the arts; airline, hotel or booking site gift certificates/vouchers for the traveler and so on. Other options include gift cards for golf, music, culinary classes and more.

2. A commitment to wellness — sincerely: Subsidized gym memberships are nice, but companies can take the commitment to employee wellness further by expressly carving out time for workers to exercise on the clock. Merchant service company Gravity Payments created a weekly running club, for example, and excuses members from work for an hour to partake. Another option is gifting wearable health trackers, such as Fitbits, to accompany that gym discount.

3. Pay leadership forward: Make a donation in a top performing employee's name to the charity of the employee’s choosing, says Elliott. The donation could have the double bonus of being tax deductible to the company while rewarding the employee. Kiva's micro-lending program is a prime candidate, since contributions empower people around the world to start their own businesses.

4. Reward education: Offer to help defray education expenses, including past student loans. Even a small stipend would be appreciated — especially by younger workers who may be saddled with debt.

5. Dinner with the CEO: While one-to-one time with the head honcho can be intimidating for some, it can be rewarding for others. "It’s an opportunity for others to get their ideas and thoughts in front of the highest level person in the company, as well as an opportunity to learn from him or her," says Brown. Follow that dinner up with a photo of the employee and CEO for the company blog or newsletter and it’s a win-win.

Of course, some of these may work within your corporate culture, while others may not. "The important thing is to take action with a personalized approach that demonstrates to your people that they are valued," says Greenway.

Photo: Can Stock

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