Reward and Recognize Employees Like This, Not That!

By Barbara Bucklin, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

If you’re a business owner, manager, or supervisor, in your best attempt to reward and recognize your employees, you may unintentionally do more harm than good. Expert Organizational Behavior Management (OBM) researchers and practitioners advise us to carefully select rewards (tangible items for a job well done) and recognition (symbolic appreciation) to function as positive reinforcers that will improve desired behaviors on the job and be described as ‘fair’ by the employees who receive them. Here are some ideas for rewarding and recognizing employees in ways proven to work.

  1. Reward Like This – Criteria-Based Performance Rewards/Recognition. To create high performance and teamwork across your organization, it’s important to give all employees the same opportunity to ‘win.’ Make the required criteria clear, and give the same reward or recognition to all employees who achieve the criteria. In a healthy system, employees compete against their own goals to improve performance, not against other employees (Abernathy, 2011; Daniels, 2016).

Not That!  Employee of the Month. Daniels (2016) makes an argument against the all too common Employee of the Month (EOM) program and states that it “violates almost every known principle of effective recognition and positive reinforcement” (p.  153). I personally cringe every time I see an Employee of the Month sign. Why?

  • Most employees have no idea why they won or even what it takes to win; EOM is typically not contingent on specific behavior.
  • There’s often a significant delay between an employee’s desired performance (if there’s any contingency at all) and receiving an EOM award.
  • It pits employees against each other in unfriendly competition and can promote behavior that sabotages team members (“I’d better make my team members look bad if I want to win EOM and that coveted parking spot to go along with it.”)

Or Not That! Peer Selected Rewards/Recognition. Peers selecting rewards/recognition can lead to all sorts of ugly behavior in the workplace, especially if there’s a limited number of valuable rewards available. Imagine what the behavioral contingencies promote (hint – often not much to do with desired work behavior, unless it’s, “let me help you [committee member] finish that project!”). The peer committee members may see a lot of ‘friendly’ behavior come their way (“hey, let’s grab a beer after work”) and, like EOM, you’ll see plenty of behaviors that sabotage other employees who compete for the limited rewards.

  1. Reward Like This – Personalized Rewards and Recognition. Many employers complain that they tried a reward or recognition system but it didn’t work. If it didn’t work, what they selected as rewards or recognition weren’t reinforcers. Personalize how you recognize your employees by giving them choices. Ask what restaurants they like, where they like to shop, what sports teams they follow, if they enjoy public recognition or prefer to stay behind the scenes. You get the idea. Try out some of their choices and continue to keep it fresh and novel. To confirm that it’s working, keep talking to your employees about their likes and dislikes, and more importantly, observing their work behavior and results.

Not That!  One Size Fits All Rewards and Recognition. When employees all receive the same plaque, gift card, watch, or public recognition at the monthly team meeting, it’s unlikely to work equally well for all recipients. One employee may be thrilled with her new Fitbit and another may not care about gadgets or exercise and never take it out of its box. Or one employee may bask in public praise, and another may be so embarrassed by the attention that he never wants to be in the situation again and stops doing what earned him the recognition.

  1. Reward Like This – Individual Incentives as Reward. When delivering incentives (monetary or non-monetary), make them directly contingent on individual performance. Incentives work best when employees have control over the behavior and results required to earn them. In fact, research shows that monetary incentives can be as small as 3% of an employees’ overall pay if those incentives are directly tied to his or her individual performance (Bucklin & Dickinson, 2001).

Not That!  Large Group Incentives. On the flip side, research tells us that incentives (monetary or non-monetary) don’t work when employees have little to no control over their ability to earn them. Think about examples where incentives are based on the combined performance of many team members; no one member has control over the results, and we typically won’t see improved performance from any of them (Bucklin & Dickinson, 2001).

Or Not That! – Promotion as Reward. Instead of delivering incentives based on top performance, it’s common practice to promote employees to management positions. Abernathy (2011) cites four reasons employers should avoid this. First, when we move a top performer out of a job position, we lower the department’s overall performance while the replacement learns new job skills. Second, many top performers lack managerial skills and report that they don’t enjoy managing people. Third, using promotion as reward pits employees against each other in unhealthy competition for a limited number of positions. And finally, this system puts pressure on organizations to create unnecessary top-level positions to reward employees.

  1. Reward Like This – Daily Reinforcement. Your system won’t work if there are delays between the behavior and when employees earn the reward or recognition. You might be thinking, “How can I possibly reward my employees every day?” It can be pretty simple; use a point system in either a low-tech way (e.g., whiteboard) or a high-tech way (e.g., online performance portal). With this method, employees immediately see points or scores that bridge the gap between behavior and reinforcement (Daniels, 2016).

Not That! – Annual Performance Appraisals. If you google ‘annual performance appraisals’ you’ll see many articles citing reasons why they don’t work and are going by the wayside (e.g., FastCompany, 2015). These articles align with what we behavior analysts have been demonstrating for decades – feedback delivered on an annual basis is far too delayed to impact performance, plus it’s often not specific enough. As a manager, how can you possibly remember what happened 12 months ago? Or,if you’re keeping track of the data over the 12 months, why not share them with employees frequently? I’m encouraged by this trend and hope to see more employers follow suit and replace annual performance appraisals with frequent, specific feedback and reinforcement.


To summarize, make rewards and recognition (1) equally available based on objective performance criteria, (2) delivered at least daily (or bridge the gap with points or data), (3) personalized in that they function as reinforcers, and (4) directly contingent on individual performance under the employee’s control.

What are your own best practices for incentivizing your employees?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Abernathy, W. B. (2011). The sin of wages. Atlanta, GA: Performance Management Publications.

Bucklin, B. R., & Dickinson, A. M. (2001). Individual monetary incentives: A review of different types of arrangements between performance and pay. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 21(3), 45–137.

Daniels, A. C. (2016). Bringing out the best in people. New York: McGraw-Hill.

FastCompany (October, 2015). Why The Annual Performance Review Is Going Extinct. Retrieved from:

Barbara Bucklin, PhD is a global learning and performance improvement leader with 20 years of experience who collaborates with her clients to identify performance gaps and recommend solutions that are directly aligned with their core business strategies. She oversees design and development processes for learning (live and virtual), performance-support tools, performance metrics, and a host of innovative blended solutions.

Dr. Bucklin serves as President and is on the Board of Directors for the Organizational Behavior Management Network. She has taught university courses in human performance technology, the psychology of learning, organizational behavior management, and statistical methods. Her research articles have appeared in Performance Improvement Quarterly and the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management. She presents her research and consulting results at international conventions such as the Association for Talent Development (ATD), International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), Training Magazine’s Conference and Expo, and the Organizational Behavior Management Network.  You can contact Dr. Bucklin at

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  1. This article is fantastic! It covers so many levels in one piece. A great easy reference to share with others. I just sent it out to my team!

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