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

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.

EnerNOC takes a multiple-rewards strategy

EnerNOC sets sustainability goals for overall participation and personal actions taken. Employees can earn points for engaging in new sustainable activities such as carpooling, using public transportation, recycling and investing in energy efficiency measures at home, as well as other sustainability or conservation-oriented activities. The rewards they earn are then tied to a portion of individual year-end bonuses, which “has definitely been a motivating experience,” says Veronica Willette, who runs the program day to day. The company also offers additional green benefits such as a fuel-efficient vehicle allowance, a Zipcar discount and Energy Star appliance reimbursements.

According to Willette, the comprehensive approach mirrors EnerNOC’s business strategy.  Willette explains: “Our business model reflects a comprehensive approach to energy management, so it only makes sense to have a comprehensive approach to our personal sustainability program. The benefit programs are very specific, so if you’re not planning on purchasing new energy-efficient appliances or a car, for example, you might not use those incentives. The sustainable actions and corresponding bonus are a bit broader, so they reward more sustainable behaviors — even the free ones.”

Willette says that recognition is also a core component of the program. “We recognize exceptionally green employees and highlight innovative ways to improve environmentally responsible behavior.”

Organic Valley gives incentives for growing and giving 

Organic Valley has also created an employee growth incentive program that rewards employees for personal and professional growth as well as for contributing to their community. The program started with organic education and grew into a wide variety of training, wellness, community service and sustainability initiatives. The company awards points for activities ranging from attending brown bag readings and movies to using the company vanpool to getting an energy audit. At the end of the year, these points are worth cash. 

Money tends to be a big inspiration, but Organic Valley’s sustainability project coordinator Evan Roberts says that recognition also plays an essential role in motivating their employees. They use a monthly newsletter and company-wide meetings to highlight employees who are engaged in their sustainability program. “Recognition definitely drives behavior. I think that our employees that are recognized become ‘green heroes’ within the organization. Other employees go to them with questions,” he says.  

CA Technologies gives out green stars

Cynthia Curtis, chief sustainability officer of CA Technologies, also emphasizes the importance of recognition. CA created a Green Star award, given out as part of the company’s broader rewards program. Each quarter, an individual or team – from CA's global operations, including Latin America, Asia, North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa -- gets the Green Star, based on how the individual or team has taken on an initiative or engaged in something “above and beyond” that will help the company reach its sustainability goals. The award is $500 in cash, along with gift certificates and a hand-blown glass star.

Since she started giving out the reward, Curtis can think of only one person primarily interested in the money aspect. “Several have taken the money and planted trees or donated it to an environmental organization. The response was exactly what you would love to see. People like to be recognized among their peers. People respond more positively to recognition, and you can do more of it. You end up promoting the type of behavior change you are trying to get by recognizing people.”

In addition to the Green Star award, CA offers green benefits and is rolling out a comprehensive employee sustainability platform (full disclosure: it’s working with my company, Practically Green).

Curtis is also working to establish goals with CA’s organizational leaders to lay out a road map for the company’s recently agreed-to 35 percent reduction in emissions target and to determine how those goals tie into overall performance goals and incentives. “The end year for the target is 2020, off a base year of 2006. So, understanding — and signing up to — the implications and the role we all play on an annual basis is critical to success.”

Rackspace rewards culture

That said, top-down support for rewards and recognition isn’t always a requirement for success. It depends on the culture. Melissa Gray, sustainability director at Rackspace in San Antonio, points out that their culture would likely reject that approach. “What wouldn’t work is someone commanding sustainability. We’re a bottoms-up, new ideas, try-new-things, employee-driven culture. One of the strengths of our culture is that people are learners. They want to do the right thing, and they want to do it better.”

Rackspace conducts an engagement survey and asks employees about how they perceive the company’s green actions and whether they think it can be doing more. “They give us feedback that tells us how we are doing and we support actions and programs they are interested in,” Gray says. When their green team suggested a company community-supported agriculture program, it was set up. Over 300 people signed on. Next up? They’re improving recycling rates. She adds that the rewards and recognition elements of their program are really about the “smaller” things. “We’re a tribe-based organization, a collection of small groups that make up the company — visibility and recognition happens through those smaller groups.” 

Whether top-down or bottom-up, integration into the culture is a critical aspect of success for sustainability rewards and recognition programs. “We’ve found it’s critical to leverage an existing program that’s in place as opposed to creating a whole new something that doesn’t follow the same processes. The program shouldn’t be separate and apart, but integral to how we do business,” CA’s Curtis says.

The good news for you

The good news is clear: Rewards and incentives, when connected to the culture and appropriate to the behavior change a company wants, can be an important component of an effective sustainability engagement program. And, as evidenced, there are many ways to reward.

As you navigate the choices and decide which approach makes sense for your company and employees, there’s one last thing to keep in mind: Practitioners agree that the place to start is with what already exists. Sounds obvious, but it’s true. When you tap into the reward structure that is already in place, engagement in sustainability is seen as an integrated part of the overall employee experience, not some separate, bolted-on program. And that’s its own reward — for the head of sustainability!