Friday, 11 February 2011

Second-rates and saboteurs: possible consequences of employee of the month schemes?

As the BPS' newest employee, I'm thinking about how to make a good impression on my peers and managers. Perhaps I could even make it to Employee of the Month! "EOM" schemes are highly popular across companies, and considered by many to be best practice, so I was fascinated to find a paper by Johnson and Dickinson that starts to explore the motivational consequences of such schemes.

The studies described in the article seem to me preliminary, with a small student sample and favouring eyeballing over statistical analysis; I'll just touch on them below. The literature review, however, is a real eye-opener, and reveals how much opportunity there is for investigation of this area, with “no published empirical studies on EOM, even within a variety of disciplines such as psychology, management, and economics." Moreover, there are a number of criticisms of EOM design, including:
  • A competitive structure. If everyone performs well this month, there's still only one EOM: it pays to do better than others, not to excel together.
  • A winner-takes-all design. Small differences in performance may make the difference between acclaim and... tumbleweed. The pretty good and the mediocre are treated the same: they're invisible.
  • A focus on results over methods. Getting things done by bulldozing your workmates could be a way to win the award.
  • Criteria that are often vague and not transparent.
Some EOM schemes attempt to 'share the wealth' by ensuring the award revolves around to new individuals. This could however dampen any recognition value it has: "I've performed best this month... except for maybe Janet and Khaled, who already got it." The authors investigate this: in their sample of six students they don't see visible improvements on a dull computer-based processing task after being told they have won a revolving award.

A non-revolving scheme however, can end up with one or several great performers hogging the award, leaving the swathe of the 'able middle' unrecognised and unmotivated. Johnson and Dickinson look at this also, in a study where they set up their participants to always come in between 2nd and 5th place behind a named (fictional) "co-worker". Over time, a few of the students tailed off somewhat in performance, but a few others didn't. In my view this research doesn't provide compelling evidence for or against these EOM features, but lays some groundwork for subsequent work: watch this space.

One further risk, deliberately excluded from the research by using fictional teams, is that employees may seek the award via counterproductive work behaviours that could even slip into covert sabotage. If Steve is just one flawless restaurant set-up ahead of me, maybe I'll dawdle the next time he's in charge. This is serious business, and the consequence of EOMs focusing on results over behaviour.

Overall, this paper calls to our attention how shaky the theory and evidence for EOM schemes is, despite their obvious attractions as catchy, memorable, and simple ways to try to recognise employees. Raising the number of awards and a greater focus on behaviours seem supportable steps, but it's also key that organisations look inward to how the schemes are viewed by the employees who participate – or not.

Does your organisation have a EOM scheme? What are your views on its strengths and weaknesses? Johnson, D., & Dickinson, A. (2010). Employee-of-the-Month Programs: Do They Really Work? Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 30 (4), 308-324 DOI: 10.1080/01608061.2010.520144

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