Swag, cash or kudos: The best rewards of employee engagement

[Editor's note: Susan Hunt Stevens is the CEO of Practically Green, a company that works with companies -- including CA Technologies, which is included in this article -- to help engage employees on sustainability using games and social media. Want to learn more? Check out this video of Hunt Stevens discussing gamification.]

As a provider of sustainability engagement programs, one of the most frequent questions we get asked by current and prospective clients is: “How important are rewards to the success of the program?” Our response is often another question: “What do you mean when you say rewards?” 

This usually prompts an in-depth conversation about what metric the sustainability team members are trying to influence in their employee engagement program. Are they trying to drive up participation in the overall program or do they just want to drive adoption of specific behaviors? Do they want rewards to influence the perception of the overall culture and values of the company? How committed is senior-level leadership? And, of course, the operational concerns: What’s their budget?  Who is going to handle communication, tracking and fulfillment, and how? 

In our experience, rewards and incentives can be effective, but they’re not one-size-fits-all. Some rewards programs work very well for some employees, but not for others.  Some programs influence one specific type of behavior but don’t work well for changing other behaviors. Some may drive up short-term participation in the program but don’t create meaningful change. And some just don’t work well at all — or worse, they send conflicting messages about the corporate culture and the sustainability program. 

So what’s the best way for a head of sustainability to think about the different options and create the right choices for the company? Here is a summary of the different types of rewards and some best practices for rewards programs shared by sustainability leaders at a diverse range of companies.

1. Green Benefits or Incentives
Some companies offer incentives for specific actions they want employees to take, ranging from subsidies for hybrid cars and Energy Star appliances to free Zipcar memberships.

2. Recognition Programs
In these programs, employees are given status in the organization for certain actions or achievements. Status can range from earning a sticker for achieving a “certified green office” to being named a sustainability champion and getting invited to an exclusive pizza lunch with the president of the company. 

3. Bonuses and Compensation
Bonus programs tie financial rewards, either as part of the overall company compensation plan or as an extra bonus, to achieving specific sustainability metrics. Bonuses can be tied to individual performance or participation or to company achievements as a whole.

4. Points or Stuff Programs
Particularly popular in wellness programs -- and researched heavily in that sector -- these programs create a currency that employees can earn for doing specific actions. They can then trade in the currency for actual products or services.

While some companies focus on one type of reward, the most transformational programs actually tend to include more than one component. For example, EnerNOC created a corporate and personal sustainability program to challenge employees to make greener choices as well as to provide educational resources to support those choices.

Photo of business people giving high five by Yuri Arcus via Shutterstock.