Start Your FREE Membership NOW
 Discover Proven Ways to Be a Better Law Office Manager
 Get Our Weekly eNewsletter, Law Office Manager Bulletin,
    and MUCH MORE
 Absolutely NO Risk or Obligation on Your Part -- It's FREE!

Upgrade to Premium Membership NOW for Just $90!
Get 3 Months of Full Premium Membership Access
Includes Our Monthly Newsletter, Office Toolbox, Policy Center, and Archives

Don’t turn your employee awards into an office morale disaster

Done right, an employee-of-the-year award can be an effective productivity and teamwork promoter. Done poorly, it can be a morale disaster.

The cautions are many. Don’t make the award a surprise and don’t award it without setting specific criteria for winning.

Here are helpful instructions for making an employee award program a success.

Whatever the office wants

Any employee award is most commonly given to an individual, but it can be just as effective when given to a group of employees or to a department or office site. Individual departments can have their own employee-of-the-year or there can be an award for individual job groups such as secretaries or records staff.

The idea can even be expanded to include all organizational levels within the office, from individual practice areas to the entire practice. Using this approach is a good way to encourage teamwork. Employees can be rewarded for reaching individual goals and also qualify for a department award.

Lay the ground rules

How the award is to be given is up to the manager, however it’s important the criteria for choosing the winner be clear from the outset. Letting staff know what they have to do to win ensures the process is fair.

Again, the manager chooses the criteria.

A good basic requirement is that the winner has to achieve goals set at the beginning of the year. Then other requirements are added.

One way to identify criteria is to ask “what do we expect the most excellent employee in this position to look like?” or “what do we expect the most excellent department to look like?”

When establishing group awards, make sure the requirements are achievable by everyone. Don’t include anything that would make it easy for one person, but difficult or even impossible for someone else. For example, if the billing department has a goal of speeding up collections by so many days, it’s not fair to include the billing secretary in the running, because that person can’t influence the outcome.

Figure out how to break ties

While it’s unlikely that two or three staffers will make it to the end of the year with equal achievements, it’s still a possibility. So along with the criteria, decide how ties will be broken.

The deciding factors might be attendance or seniority. Whatever they are, tell everyone ahead of time. At best, the award may look arbitrary and generate bad feelings. At worst, it could fuel a discrimination claim.

For example, don’t break a tie by adding criteria at the last minute. And never put the decision to a staff vote. Although staff are on the front line and know who is working beyond-the-call-of-duty, people are human. They will vote for people they like and when that happens, it becomes a popularity contest that kills morale.

Without an objective way to break a tie, the only fair option is to give both winners an equal award.

Similarly, if everybody does equally well, give the reward to everybody. Say, for example, “You have all done a great job. We don’t have an employee of the year. You are all employees of the year.” And then give the same award to everybody.

Lay out the deal breakers

Parameters for qualifying for the award are also needed. Make it clear up front that anybody who is cited during the year for performance problems will not be eligible. Somebody who has been disciplined for tardiness, or who has brought about client complaints, can scarcely be seen as the best of the best. What’s more, if the manager gives the award to someone undeserving, the rest of the staff will laugh at the award and the award process.

And that’s not the worst of it. If the office has to terminate that employee later for unacceptable performance or behavior, the employee can use the award to support a claim of wrongful termination.

In addition, don’t let the award insulate anybody from being cited for inadequate behavior later on.

If the winner starts coming to work late or doing poor quality work, don’t shy away from disciplining that person the same way the office would discipline anyone else.

Not earned? Not given!

Another caution: give the award only when somebody earns it.

There’s no need to find a winner simply to fill in the blank. That only makes the award meaningless.

Suppose the requirement was that everybody had to complete 10 goals and the top performer has completed only seven.

Nobody has achieved the desired result, so nobody has earned the award. Let it sit until next year. Whoever gets the prize needs to be someone whose accomplishments everyone respects.

One for all and all for one

Management agreement is also a requirement.

That can be a problem in an office where lawyers are in contact with a limited number of staff and may tend to promote the ones they work with regularly.

If lawyers are going to participate in the selection, then the decision needs to be made during a private meeting. What’s more, the discussion needs to end when the doors open.

Tell the lawyers that everybody has to stand behind the decision, which means nobody can tell a staffer, “I thought you should have gotten that award instead of so-and-so.” To do that is to invalidate the recognition.

Again, at its worst, that remark can support a discrimination claim.

What’s the prize?

And what should the award be? That’s another choice for the manager.

It can be as elaborate as a weekend trip or as simple as dinner at an upscale restaurant, theater tickets, or a plaque. It’s up to the manager.

Editor’s picks:

The surprising answer to what your staff really wants

How to test the climate of the firm and staff’s satisfaction with it

Paid time off can be anything under the sun, even unlimited vacation









Try Premium Membership