The Basics of Staging Effective Employee Incentives, Contests and Rewards

Using employee incentives, contests, recognition and rewards is commonplace in our industry. But even the best intentions can cause indifferent results if your incentive ideas don’t resonate with the team you’re trying to inspire to perform better. Over the last five server at baryears, I’ve had the pleasure of designing and implementing employee and manager incentive and recognition programs for many of the Top 100 restaurant chains. I’d like to share a few basic guidelines and creative ideas you can use to measure, incent and recognize improved performance among both your hourly and management teams.

Recognition vs. Incentives. It’s key to start by understanding how incentives and recognition differ in order to reap the benefits of both. The first step is to clarify the difference between employee recognition and employee incentives. Incentives are usually rewards that are promised in advance of a desired action; for example, a bonus for exceeding a service goal on Mystery Shops, or exceeding a check average sales goal by 5 percent. Recognition, while it may also be financial, is an after-the-fact event. Recognition is often in the form of a reward, but should always include praise, either public or private. Ultimately your goal is NOT for someone to win a contest. Your goal is to change behavior permanently among the majority of the team you’re targeting with the incentive or contest. Which means that training and recognition are the twin engines that drive a successful individual or team-based employee contest.

Is Cash King? Relative to rewards, let’s address cash first. I’ve never been a big fan of awarding small cash rewards as a prize, because it has no “trophy” value. Yet the fact remains that it does resonate with many employees as an incentive. If you do choose cash, my suggestion is that you don’t use traditional bills when you award currency for outstanding effort. If you hand a team member a $20 bill as a gesture of gratitude, the emotional buzz lasts anywhere from 12 to 15 seconds. The cash goes into a wallet and, effectively, disappears. Reward with ten $2 bills Instead — servers or cooks or dishwashers will remember where these came from each time they spend one.

Gift Cards or tickets. Gift cards and tickets can make a longer-lasting impression than cash for hourly employees. The special trip the employee makes to the grocery store, gas station or to attend an event (concert, game, festival) reinforces your appreciation for their performance. And gift cards can be especially cost-effective when you exchange your restaurant’s gift certificates for GCs from local supermarkets, restaurants, or clothing stores. Avoid awarding GCs from your restaurant as prizes as they may have the same cachet.

Experience Certificates. Instead of gift cards, consider rewarding performers with vouchers for lessons from a ski schools, cooking class, golf school, spa retreats, backpacking excursion, and racecar driving schools. Amazon Local has dozens of offerings daily for these kinds of deals.

Include your employees in the nominating process. Who appreciates great teamwork more than the team members who benefit from another’s selfless contributions? Many times, managers won’t even be aware of the outstanding effort. Listen to your employees and encourage them to recognize outstanding performance in your pre-shift meetings. Encourage them to nominate their fellow servers, bussers or cooks for recognition, or to recognize their colleagues themselves without having to go through managers. Don’t presume it will happen without you promoting it.

Recognize employees who talk up your company. Show appreciation to your top performers not only for their performance, but also pay attention to what they say about your restaurant when they’re not at work. If your employees promote your company’s looking up black guyimage and reputation by participating in local fundraisers, blogging on social media like LinkedIn or Facebook or contribute an article to an industry publications, or sitting on a panel or making a presentations at a restaurant show, be sure to recognize that contribution. If you’re lucky, you’ll find more employees working hard to spread the good name of your organization to both the near and far community.

Surprise food treats. If you run a pizza restaurant, order in Chinese food after a busy lunch rush for the team, or send out for staff “surprise Slurpies” from the local convenience store.

What’s your appreciation ratio? Compensation is a requirement but recognition is a choice. Compliment people’s strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses. (A pat on the back is just a few vertebrae up from a kick in the ass.) Every day on your “to-do” list, write down the name of each employee working that shift. After you compliment or recognize each team member, cross their name off the list. In these days of triple digit turnover ratios, this task is as critical as anything else you accomplish that shift. The daily pre-shift meeting should be mandatory, not optional in your business. This is where you can show appreciation, recognition, focus and energy every single day, transforming recognition into a philosophy instead of an “event.”

Competition and Contests differs among Generations. There is a school of thought that traditional competition—and therefore employee contests–may not be as effective with Millennials as with Gen X or Baby Boomers in the workplace. The rationale is that unlike Baby Boomers and GenX who played games to beat each other; today’s younger workers collaborated to beat the game, not each other. So perhaps it’s wise to stage more team contests than individual competition.

4 Cool Contest/Incentive Ideas

The Walt Disney Company recognizes its hourly teams with a philosophy they call “Small, unexpected rewards for jobs well-done.” The following 4 contest/incentive/reward ideas are time –tested and true for generating results.

  1. The “Perfect” Guest Check: every guest check that has a beverage sale, appetizer sale, entrée sale and dessert sale on it is considered a “perfect” check. Servers turn in all their perfect checks at the end of the shift and the manager draws one or two for a special prize
  2. Sales Bingo: make a bingo card with 12 or 16 squares on it. Each square features an item you want the team to sell like a specific appetizer, premium beer, dessert, soup, side, etc. Every time a server sells one that block off that Bingo square. Goal is to sell a row or the whole card for a prize.
  3. Floating $20. Choose an item you want to sell more of, say, a bottle of wine. First server (or bartender) to sell one gets a $20 bill from the manager. The first server or bartender to sell TWO bottles of wine takes the $10 bill from the person who sold one. The first server or bartender to sell THREE bottles of wine takes the $20 bill from the person who sold two, etcetera. At the end of the shift, one person ends up with the $20, everyone has fun competing, and overall sales rise. Next shift pick a different food or beverage item to focus on.
  4. Beat your Best. Configure and post each server’s sales check average from the last week or month and then encourage them to exceed that average this week or month. Reward the person with the highest percentage increase over their average.

The fact is, you don’t have to show appreciation for any team member–just like you don’t ever have to brush your teeth either–only the ones you want to keep.