The Failure of EOM

Selecting an employee for special recognition every month, quarter, or year is the most common form of workplace recognition.


Burger King Employees

As far as I can determine, the purpose of the practice, which I will refer to as Employee of the Month (EOM) is to motivate employees to do their best. I can state categorically that it doesn’t. Managers and supervisors apparently assume that those who don’t get the recognition will be motivated to try to earn the recognition the next month. That assumption also is dead wrong. As a matter of fact, EOM violates every known principle of effective positive reinforcement.
A few of the many problems with EOM:
Reinforcement is competitive
Recognition is infrequent
In most organizations, recognition is not earned
Recognition is not reinforcing
If this practice is not effective, what can explain its popularity? It’s actually easy to understand how EOM became an imbedded recognition strategy. EOM is easy to administer, requiring only a few minutes each month to decide who will get the recognition; the person receiving it is usually excited about it, and the rewards are certainly inexpensive, requiring only a photo, a designated parking space, and possibly even a free meal or two. By the way, more elaborate and expensive awards don’t increase the effectiveness; they only increase the cost. Although EOM usually is started with the best of intentions, the way the program is structured and administered assures that it will fail.
To be clear, Employee of the Month fails all of the four criteria for effective positive reinforcement.
EOM is not personal
EOM is not immediate
EOM is not contingent
EOM is not frequent
Employee of the Month fails on every criterion that behavior analysis tells us is necessary to cause people to want to do their best in the workplace every day.

What I recommend, instead, is a Get To Know Your Fellow Employee program. Publish bios of every employee. Place the bios at some easily accessible spot on the internal computer system, on the Web, or put them in a book, a Company Facebook if you will. Employees will discover many things that they have in common with other employees and this will likely increase employee interactions that facilitate teamwork and cooperation. It may even lead to additional friendships in the workplace; something that the Gallop survey (1999) thinks is an important indicator of effective management. In addition, as people accomplish things at work, at home, or in the community that deserve some notice, put them in a newsletter or some other publication–a Did You Know? section, for example. Ultimately, Employee of the Month carries too much negative baggage to warrant any management time and expense. So why do anything at all? You should do it because recognition and reward are valuable in a management culture of daily positive reinforcement. If you don’t have a positive reinforcement culture then recognition and reward are unlikely to have the desired impact and are a waste of time and money. A positive reinforcement culture is one where everyone knows the rules for effective reinforcement and practices them every day. Positive reinforcement is not just something for managers to do. It is something that everyone needs to do. It is just as effective to provide positive reinforcement for your boss as it is for the boss to reinforce you.

Create a positive reinforcement culture.
Teach all employees about positive reinforcement as a scientific concept.
Don’t limit the number of employees who can be recognized and rewarded.
Set criteria such that everyone who exceeds is recognized and rewarded.
Avoid recognition and rewards where the adjectives, first, top, best, and most improved are used.
Set the awards in such a way that you will be happiest when all employees earn them at the same time.


Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Winter 2009