Ask SCORE: Plenty of ways to show employees appreciation for a job well done


Question: Recently you talked with a business owner who had high employee turnover. In contrast, my employees are a pretty solid group. But I'm looking for some ways to motivate them to stay on board. I can't pay big bucks for salaries, so are there some other ways to give them incentives to stick with me?

Answer: Yes, there are dozens of ways to motivate employees and build loyalty without breaking the bank. Let's talk about this.

Just so you know, human resource professionals generally consider that a comprehensive reward system has four main components. The two "hard" areas are wages and benefits. The two "soft" areas are recognition and appreciation.

We're not going to discuss formal programs like employee stock options or profit-sharing plans today. Instead we'll focus on some less formal incentives, and on using rewards and other fun techniques. These have proven to be effective, fairly low in cost, and appropriate to most small businesses.

Warning: It's very tempting to jump into this the wrong way: backwards. This could happen when you hear about an innovative employee reward plan, for example, and then try to force-fit it into your business. The right way is to take a moment, and define your objectives. What behaviors would you like to see more, or less, of? What kinds of opportunities would you like to have your employees bring to you?

Here are the five currently most popular and effective employee incentive programs, all at little cost. See what ideas you might be able to adapt for your business.

Health and wellness programs. These have been common at the corporate and governmental levels for years. Lately smaller companies are adopting them with innovative ideas tuned to small business. Check out the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention ( for information about the Healthier Worksite Initiative. Healthy employees have higher productivity and lower absenteeism.

Typical examples:

• Company-sponsored gym memberships, with discounts for family members.

• Quit-smoking, or weight-loss assistance; confidential mental health counseling.

• Set up a small library of health-related materials. This could include workout videos and healthy-cooking recipe books.

• Install secure bike storage; introduce it with a "Bike-to-Work Week" event.

Flextime and telework scheduling. Consider these very popular arrangements if appropriate to your business model. Flextime allows certain employees to self-select their working hours, as long as they're at work during the "core" hours, typically 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Also, telework (also called telecommuting) allows an employee to work from a home office some agreed part of the time. For more on these topics, Google the two terms.

Suggestion box awards. This idea has been around for decades, and it's been underused by American small businesses. It may surprise you that in Japan, suggestion box ideas are commonly offered, and highly rewarded. A typical Japanese employee might make 50 suggestions a year. To make this effective, you'll have to manage it carefully. Here are some tips for doing this:

• Make up a simple pre-printed form. Have sections for: Date; Brief statement of the problem or opportunity; Suggestions to make it better; and "Other" comments. It can be anonymous, or signed.

• Empty the box weekly. Look the submissions over, and then award a prize by a random drawing from all the valid and signed suggestions. A gift card to a local restaurant is typical.

• Consider special recognition for an idea which identifies a significant waste or inefficiency, or some other fixable problem.

Training and education opportunities. Tuition reimbursement plans have become very common. Your employee asks to take a class on a business topic or other relevant subject. If you agree, the typical plan reimburses employees for tuition and necessary books at local educational outlets.

Lately the Internet has really opened this up. Example: an amazing new learning resource, the Kahn Academy ( has more than 3,200 training videos on a variety of topics. They're brief (around 10 minutes), informal and high quality. And even better, it's 100 percent free to anyone - no registration, no passwords, no login. Think about how you might use these videos for your employee development.

Our workplace is fun! Some ideas:

• Order in a pizza lunch now and then.

• Have a random drawing for who gets a paid day off next month.

• Hold an awards meeting for a special employee accomplishment.

• Open a staff meeting with a workplace-appropriate joke.

Google "workplace fun ideas" for thousands more possibilities.

Closing thought: happy employees are a very powerful recruiting tool. For more information go to and enter "employee incentive program."


To learn more about managing cash flow, and other small business matters, contact SCORE, "Counselors to America's Small Business." SCORE is a nonprofit nationwide organization with more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors who provide free, confidential business counseling and low-cost training workshops to small business owners. Call the local SCORE chapter at 360-685-4259 to schedule an appointment. For details about the organization,visit

Ask SCORE is prepared for The Bellingham Herald by Bob Dahms, a business counselor with the Bellingham chapter of SCORE. Submit questions for this column to

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