LONGMONT — These days, the image of a working parent toting home a Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham might seem quaint.
But the gesture of practical employee appreciation remains relevant.
Since 1894, when President Grover Cleveland designated the first Monday in September as Labor Day, millions of working Americans have rested and perhaps wondered what work means beyond a paycheck.
A book released this spring — “The Enthusiastic Employee” — proposed the “Three-Factor Theory.”
This theory summarizes what workers, from short-order cooks to air traffic controllers, need most: to be treated and paid fairly, to feel proud of their work and organization and to experience camaraderie — a sense of productive teamwork.
Sounds like a simple formula to nurture motivation and satisfaction in employees.
But the theory’s underlying ingredient — effective shows of employee appreciation — is a moving target. What works with one employee could fall flat for the next without some thoughtfulness.
For instance, recognizing a vegetarian employee with a steak house gift certificate will likely bomb.
Local human resources managers nevertheless said trial and error is sometimes the only way to learn how to do right by employees.
Behavioral psychology supports the hunch.
Consistent, appropriate positive reinforcement of behaviors that promote the organization’s goals improve employee performance and retention, according to the National Association for Employee Recognition.
To rank what employees appreciate most, Accountemps, one of the largest temporary staffing services for accounting, finance and bookkeeping professionals, recently hired a research firm to survey chief financial officers at 1,400 companies with 20 or more employees nationwide.
The questionnaire asked what, other than pay, most motivated employees. Frequent recognition of accomplishments topped the list and regular communication with staff scored a close second.
Recognition comes in many forms, and cottage industries have mushroomed to generate creative tokens of appreciation — from brass star paperweights to embroidered baby blankets.
Not that this market is a virgin one.
Since 1918, Terryberry Co. in Grand Rapids, Mich., has been something of a Santa’s workshop in developing incentive products and recognition programs.
The company cites research that shows competitive pay and benefits might be the bread and butter of a job. But the frosting, the sweet spot of employer/employee relations, comes from shows of recognition and appreciation.
So, it targets managers who want to recognize everything from length of service to productivity to attendance and even on-the-job safety records.
Terryberry’s Web site recommends spending between $10 to $25 per employee per year of service for an award. And its warehouses brim with Bulova clocks, grill tool sets, pendant necklaces, binoculars and the like.
A cynic might say this type of company has tried to generate its own reality, to make the sizzle seem more valuable than the steak.
But the stuffiest of entities, the federal government, legitimized the role of employee appreciation expenditures when, in 1986, it made service and safety awards excludable from the recipient’s income and tax deductible for sponsoring companies.
What employees want
All employees appreciate appreciation. But it is up to human resources managers at companies big and small to figure out how to get that message across most clearly.
Some general guidelines exist, according to Bob Bowman, owner of HRMC Consulting, a Longmont HR consulting firm.
“The younger employee is really interested in pay because they have a Camaro payment to make,” he said.
Older employees, by contrast, might appreciate a better life insurance plan over cash rewards.
Cheryl Sheldon, the HR manager at Specialty Products Co., which manufactures aftermarket front-end alignment parts, has also observed that employees prefer practical gifts to plaques.
So, to recognize service from five-year employees, she plans to replace plaques with clocks with an engraved appreciation message.
Sheldon said she has learned that Specialty Products Co. employees also strongly prefer family-friendly events.
Experimentation from year to year showed her that a ritzy, adults-only holiday dinner at the country club flopped next to an on-site potluck open to employees and their dependents.
Now, Sheldon said, she will try to create hybrid holiday experiences by booking venues such as Anderson Farms — a place outside company walls, yet geared toward fun family time.
Because time off is itself a gift — the federal government does not mandate paid vacation — HR managers said scheduling appreciation events and team-building activities during business hours is in itself considered a perk.
At COPAN Systems, a Longmont data storage company, HR manager Jennifer VonLintel said the company keeps two barbecue grills on site and encourages managers to periodically call a companywide lunch-hour cookout for good work.
COPAN provides the meat and some side dishes, with employees bringing other items.
Make it personal
However, employee appreciation efforts at COPAN revolve around a program called ROSIE, an acronym for “recognition of service, innovation and excellence.”
ROSIE allows the company to express four levels of appreciation. Level one invites peers within the company to recognize each other and enter a quarterly drawing for dining dollars and other gift certificates.
The next three manager-initiated levels of recognition entail appreciation gifts ranging in value from $30 to $1,000.
VonLintel said one secrets of the program’s success stemmed from the choice given to employees at every level.
Once recognized, employees visit her and determine what they would like the recognition reward to buy — be it a Home Depot gift certificate to finish a home-improvement project to a telescope for a stargazing hobby, she said.
At Specialty Products Co., Sheldon recently implemented “applause cards,” greeting cards with a figure jumping up on the cover.
Inside, the printed text reads: “You deserve a standing ovation.”
But the handwritten note by one employee recognizing another makes the point personal and, since employees tack the cards on the company’s bulletin board for others to read, it’s public, too.
The nominator gets a lottery ticket, and the recipient a small gift certificate.
Though low-cost, Sheldon said, the idea is priceless for making recognition a more frequent and widely accessible part of the company’s culture.
“An employee appreciates a co-worker noticing what they do every bit as much as a manager,” she said.
At Express Personnel Services in Longmont, owners Janet and Todd Isaacson manage four full-time permanent employees to help them dispatch approximately 100 associates.
They fully subscribe to personalizing appreciation gifts, even though it can backfire.
“It’s pretty much like receiving something from grandma,” Janet Isaacson said. “It could be something you don’t like. It happens. But we put a lot of thought into each one.”
For instance, they gave Mukluks boots to an employee complaining of cold feet.
“She couldn’t take them off,” Todd Isaacson said.
They also use prizes and bonuses to recognize productivity and achievement, often with gift certificates to area merchants.
“That way, they have a lot of control on how to use it. And significantly, it’s not money because money goes to pay bills,” Todd Isaacson said.
“We want it to be fun things for them,” his wife added.
Ultimately, though, saying “thank you” goes a long way in helping an employee feel valued and inspiring them to do their best work, area managers said.
“A simple pat on the back helps,” Todd Isaacson said. “But be specific. Say, ‘You did this specific thing that was good.’”
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-684-5224, or by e-mail at