Employee of the Month Certificate

10 Reasons to Ditch Employee of the Month Certificates

By George Dickson on October 21, 2015

One of the most common forms of employee recognition is the old standby: the employee of the month certificate. Though it may be popular, it's a woefully ineffective method of recognizing your team's contributions.

Here are 10 good reasons why:

1. Employee of the month certificates undermine other valuable contributions made throughout the month.

Your entire team is out there, working hard and experiencing big and small wins. By focusing solely on one employee's successes, you're not too subtly implying that the other contributions have less value.

Even worse, if your employee of the month award is not based on any particularly measurable merit, you're sending mixed signals about what you and your organization value by rewarding someone for simply being next on the list.

2. These programs do not provide much, if any, specificity.

Sure, you might tie your employee of the month award to something like attendance or sales, but what exactly is your criteria? Perhaps more importantly, how do those criteria align with the overarching goals of your organization?

Perfect attendance for the month? Exceeding the sales quota by a given percentage? Guess what, you're going to have lots of potential award winners  how will you make your selection? What happens if last month's employee of the month is this month's top contender, and more importantly: how important is it really for your goals that an employee holds a chair down?

3. Employee of the month programs breed competition.

Nearly any effective employee engagement program is going to favor collaboration amongst employees over competition. Even for employee of the moth programs with well-defined selection criteria, competition inevitably becomes a problem.

Do you want your team fighting over customers or undercutting one another to win a prize?

In a team environment, only one team member can win the award, yet the entire team often makes the effort. The employee of the month may be happy, but the rest of the team could be demoralized or resentful that their part in the win wasn't recognized.

TINYhr's Sabrina Son put it really well in a recent article she wrote on this topic:

"A team can't be employee of the month."

4. Receiving an employee of the month certificate can be awkward for the recipient.

While most employees appreciate recognition, some may find it awkward to be recognized for an arbitrary award  especially when they know that other coworkers may be more deserving. For example: it's embarrassing to be recognized for something trivial when your coworker has landed a large account or developed a brilliant solution to a vexing problem.

Public recognition can be a powerful motivator, but it's important to recognize the qualities of an employee that make them genuinely outstanding.

5. No one wants hollow praise.

Employees recognize employee of the month award programs for what they are: an arbitrary and usually trivial token. While they may accept the award graciously, it's not necessarily meaningful to them, and is often even less meaningful to the rest of the team.

6. Employee of the month programs are often too random.

Some employee of the month awards don't even bother with selection criteria, and are completely random at best, and arbitrary at worst.

"Who does the boss happen to like today? Should we draw a name out of a hat? Who hasn't won the award yet? Maybe we should recognize someone from marketing this month."

If this inner dialogue sounds familiar — or even worse, if you and your colleagues have wasted time in meetings discussing this  you're doing it wrong.

When employee recognition programs are too random, there's possible no way for employees to adapt their behaviors to ensure that they're in the running for an award.

7. Employee of the month awards don't inspire performance improvements.

Think about why you have an employee of the month award in the first place. You probably want to reward good behaviors and inspire performance improvements, right? How can you hope to inspire performance improvements if your employee of the month program is random, lacks specificity, feels hollow, or undermines the majority of the contributions of your team?

Performance takes many forms. If your program rewards sales, it might inspire some of your sales team to make a few extra calls that month, but what about your HR clerks, warehouse personnel, or computer programmers?

You may even find that employees focus on the award's criteria rather than on their core responsibilities, and that's where these programs cease to be simply benign time wasters, and become true obstacles to success.

8. Employee of the month programs are actually demotivating.

Timothy Gubler, Ian Larkin, and Lamar Pierce's Harvard Working Knowledge paper, The Dirty Laundry of Employee Award Programs found several problems with award programs, one of which was that these programs demotivated many employees. Productivity actually went down in a factory detailed in the paper. The authors concluded that rewarding one behavior, in this case attendance, can cause a decline in motivation for other behaviors.

Why is that?

Because contingent motivators like that simply motivate employees to do exactly the thing that will produce the reward. There's no incentive to go above and beyond. If you get a $50 bonus every time you exceed 30 sales calls, but no more, you're never going to make 35. You're also not likely to concern yourself with the quality of the calls  just that magic number that gets you the prize.

9. There are only 12 months in the year.

If you have 50 employees, it would theoretically take over four years for everyone to be recognized. You're not working your way through a list are you? It's deplorably ineffective to recognize employees this infrequently.

Rewards should be timely and frequent if they're going to make a notable impact. In a single week, you could have dozens of employees going above and beyond for your company; yet you're going to pick just one to recognize for the entire month?

10. There are much more effective employee recognition options available.

Why stick with an ineffective approach if you know there's a markedly better one. If your answer is "we've always done it that way," I feel sorry for your team.

Employees deserve to be recognized, and they want to feel appreciated. However, an arbitrary employee of the month certificate is not the most effective way to show your appreciation for all of the reasons listed above. Genuine, frequent recognition tied to actual achievements is much more effective.

Give credit where credit is due. It's deceptively simple, but I promise it works.

It doesn't require setting up an account at the local trophy shop or giving out $2,000 bonuses every week. It doesn't have to come from the top either. Just pay attention and be generous with positive feedback.

Encourage other members of your team to do the same to multiply your efforts. Expand the flow of genuine appreciation, and build a culture of collaboration and camaraderie, rather than competition.

Need more ideas on creating a culture of collaboration and camaraderie? 

The Leadership Survival Kit

Written by George Dickson

George Dickson

George manages content and community at Bonusly. He's dedicated to strengthening organizational cultures through thoughtful leadership and frequent recognition.